Critic: two boisterous new tapas bars that have Torontonians eating dinner at midnight
922 Queen St. W.,
Padrón are the witches’ fingers of peppers—gnarled, pointy and green—and one in 10 is hellishly hot. In Spain’s tapas bars, they’re pan-seared until black and blistered, then sprinkled with sea salt. At Patria, the relentlessly glitzy Spanish restaurant that opened on King West last year, I watched a quartet of women with feathery weaves gingerly bite into their peppers, as if on an episode of Fear Factor, and relax when they proved safe. You eat them as a dare, and that’s part of the fun.
Toronto seems to rediscover Spanish restaurants every decade or so. They promise a special-night-out fizz, abetted by the pass-the-croquetas chaos of shared plates. The newest batch—Carmen and Bar Isabel—opened downtown and cater to the influx of loft-condo singles, who like their restaurants to feel like nightclubs.
The mood at Carmen, in the row of restaurants west of Trinity Bellwoods on Queen, is more like a house party. In the summer, Veronica del Carmen Laudes, who also own Torito in Kensington Market, and Luis Valenzuela open the windows, and the hubbub carries far down the street. The room, unlike other Queen West restaurants that resemble pioneer villages, presents a sensory overload of painted Andalusian tiles, red leather benches and ornate ironwork (the brand of garish, like Bizet’s, that’s good in small doses). Looming over our table was a floor-to-ceiling Goya print of a sultry doña, who looked like a sister of the buxom women in fetishistic nun garb adorning the walls at Patria. Seduction, we’re to understand, is a Spanish thing.
Valenzuela, Carmen’s chef, divides his dishes into classics (warmed citrusy olives, crisp-battered artichokes with creamy aïoli, deep red strips of serrano ham) and what he calls “tapas de vanguardia,” which are mildly innovative but not the mind-boggling stuff of the Spanish school of molecular gastronomy pioneered by Ferran Adrià. He compresses cubes of watermelon for concentrated fruitiness, drizzles them with lime and olive oil, then tops them with salty flakes of dried serrano ham. There’s a version of the padrón, too, only Valenzuela substitutes the near-identical and easier-to-source shishito peppers and surrounds them with a pool of bright red tomato sauce and a slick of floral olive oil to complement their sweetness. That night, my luck ran out as I bit into the one-in-10 pepper and was rewarded with a mouthful of acidic fire. It wasn’t habanero calibre, exactly, though hot enough to necessitate an extra round of the house sangria, served quaintly in jam jars.
The menu notes that paella is “meant to be shared in a kindhearted and casual manner,” which I took to be a sly jab at the sort of Torontonian who stuffily avoids tapas restaurants. Valenzuela warns his customers that it takes 45 minutes to prepare, which is a cue to order more tapas. It’s easy to overcook paella, but ours was perfect: savoury, saffron-scented rice larded with chubby, caramelized scallops, charred hunks of chorizo, and a clattering haul of clams and mussels. Here and there, Valenzuela placed dabs of nutty pesto. Some restaurants devote a suspicious amount of time to artistic presentation to distract from the blandness of the food, but Valenzuela’s plates are as pretty as they are tasty. For dessert, he drizzles a pineapple with a tart balsamic reduction and molasses, then dusts the plate with lime zest and crushed pink peppercorns.
Where Carmen is unpretentious and romantic, Bar Isabel, Grant van Gameren’s much-anticipated new place, is loud and willfully ragged—the aggressively hipster version of a Spanish restaurant. Isabel took over the College Street space previously occupied by the venerable Italian restaurant Grappa. The interior has been carefully designed to evoke a time-worn, smoke-stained tavern, with low arches, clouded mirrors and sallow wood panelling, though it feels more like a 1970s suburban rec room. The space is dimly lit (the birthday partiers beside us used the flashlight function of their BlackBerrys to see what they were eating), and all the hard surfaces create an echo chamber. It must be the noisiest dinner in the city—we gave up speaking to our server and simply pointed at menu items.
This is van Gameren’s first solo effort since 2011, when he left the Black Hoof, the one-stove Dundas West restaurant that worked the city into a carnivorous craze for bone marrow and charcuterie. He’s the kind of self-taught skater punk chef who sneers at pretty plating. Van Gameren worked his way up through the upscale kitchens of Canoe and Lucien but The Hoof made him into a proper celebrity chef—one who is admired for technique and inventiveness, not for hosting a Food Network series.
After leaving the Hoof, he and a couple of partners founded Crown Salumi, a 6,000-square-foot Belleville operation that supplies van Gameren–cured meats to Toronto gourmet stores like Cheese Boutique and Stasis Preserves. He also consulted for Max Rimaldi, the restaurateur behind the two Pizzeria Librettos and the family-style trattoria Enoteca Sociale. Rimaldi is van Gameren’s partner in Bar Isabel, and during the planning stages sent him on an eating tour of Italy, France, Denmark and Spain. He came back obsessed with recreating the atmosphere of the tapas bars where Spaniards gather in large groups, and the party continues late into the night. Spanish cooking, which prizes sausages and offal, was a logical next step for van Gameren. But he has loftily said that he’s not cooking Spanish food; rather, his cooking is influenced by Spain—a caveat that allows him to revisit Hoof greatest hits like tongue on brioche and horsemeat tartare with hot sauce.
The servers at Isabel assume you know his entire story—which is likely true of most diners in the room, as well as the lineup of people waiting outside. Our server confided without prompting that “Grant” had picked the ramps that very morning, to accompany a dish of sobrassada—a softer version of chorizo, heavy on the smoked paprika. Of the many tiny plates that crowded our table, the most memorable weren’t his magnificently fatty charcuterie dishes, which have lost their novelty, but the first-rate seafood tapas, like a tender, briny whole octopus, simmered in white wine, lightly grilled and tossed with garlic and lemon juice. For mojama, another traditional tapas dish, he layers medallions of air-dried albacore tuna with luscious orange sections and toasted, plump Marcona almonds. The one flub of the night was the bowl of undercooked and under-salted peppers (like Valenzuela, van Gameren uses shishitos). They were about as fun to eat as leftover crudités.
I heard grumblings about similar misfires and long waits between plates from Hoof fans who’d rushed to Bar Isabel in its first weeks. Word was that van Gameren, in charge of a bigger kitchen, was buckling under the demands. Yet that’s the nature of tapas: the night is long, and not every dish will be a revelation, but there are many more promising ones to come. If anything, van Gameren seemed to welcome the intense scrutiny, inviting big-spending diners to tour his kitchen, and tweeting an announcement that he’d extended his hours—and the party—until last call.
My recommendation is to go on a Tuesday, as I did for a second visit, and arrive before the doors open at 6 and the mobs arrive. I got a nice table with a view of the long bar, where they make complicated, super-boozy cocktails with fruit oils and unusual house-made bitters. (The bartender, a Momofuku veteran named Michael Webster, collects obscure tinctures on road trips in the Deep South.) The room filled up fast and soon grew as frantic as a busload of flamenco dancers. It wasn’t so long ago the city’s restaurants would sit empty early in the week. Now we’re all Spaniards.