Bar Isabel is one of a new flock of hipster joints popping up on the outskirts of the Ossington strip. Perhaps they are listening to consumers because instead of puffing out their plaid chests with ridiculous policies, they actually take reservations and accept plastic.
As for the décor, it’s a mix of a man cave and grandma’s kitchen. The lights were dim and music was blasting but tables are meticulously arranged throughout. The walls looked liked they could either hold pictures of bikini clad women or cozy covered tea pots and miniature dolls. The music itself was moderately loud and quite eclectic but it fit the atmosphere.
The staff were like Dr. Seuss characters…some were short and some were tall, some used gel and some were bald. Some looked stoic and some looked glad, some wore bowties and some wore plaid. Even the patrons fit the bill, ranging from a couple that looked like they just left the Rolling Stones concert to a woman at the other end of the bar who had the hair and wardrobe of somebody who belongs in a sepia photo that would be framed on one of grandma’s shelves in the main dining room.
The hostess with fiery red hair ( at least it appeared to be red in the dim light so I’ll call her red fish) sat me at the bar. A “You may get wet on this ride” might have been appropriate because at times I got the odd spray of soda water or lemon from the frantic workings of the barkeep (who I will aptly call blue fish) whipping up an array of traditional and not so traditional cocktails. Quite fun. I threw my hat in and ordered a classic….a 2.5 oz corpse reviver #2 (Plymouth gin, cointreau, lillet blanc, lemon juice, absinthe rinse) for $15. Delicious but expensive.
I quickly realized that she was the Rosetta stone of Bar Isabel. She quickly recommended a few dishes which I properly wouldn’t have ordered otherwise because A) they didn’t look the most appealing and B) I didn’t know what the hell they were. Yes, I will admit that in cases I have pulled out the blackberry in secrecy to look up a menu item I didn’t recognize. She raved about the boquerones and the mojama salad and offered a brief explanation of each. I said sure. She also suggested the fried chicken, telling me it was the best in Toronto.
I started with the Giardiniera Pickles. They were spiced nicely and offered a terrific variety of veggies. They were a bit oily which I suppose is characteristic of this type of pickle. Plus, they had fancy plates.
Boquerones are anchovies, usually soaked in vinegar. Served with paquillo peppers and jalapenos, this is one of the best things I’ve eaten all year; an absolute sensory overload. Acid predominated but was tamed by the sweetness of the paquillo, the heat of the jalapeno and the buttery saltiness of the fish itself. The homemade corn chips brought some earthiness and crunch and were absolutely delicious on their own. Plus, they had fancy plates.
Mojama is salted tuna. Once again, a fantastic balance was achieved with the richness of the tuna combined with zesty orange, pungent red onion and earthy almonds. The same ingredients offered a great textural contrast was as well. Each bite was a salty and fleshy with a bit of juiciness and crunch. The sorrel was a delicious addition. I actually wanted a bit more. Plus, they had fancy plates.
Fried chicken is fried chicken. Both the chicken and the eggplant were served hot. The coating was nicely spiced and surrounded moist white meat which was cut in chicken finger size pieces. I found it a bit greasy which resulted in putting the tea towel to good use. The eggplant was cooked nicely and wasn’t mushy although it was an odd side to serve with the chicken. Plus, they had fancy plates.
The service was impeccable. I was seated quickly, there was no attitude and no fewer than 5 employees checked on me during the service. In fact, when one of them realized I was waiting to pay my bill he dropped everything and settled up even though he wasn’t my server. I was asked my opinion about all the dishes. I was even impressed when the guy I assumed was the manager or owner smelled my empty wine glass and asked me how I enjoyed the Italian wine I ordered.
If this is the new wave of hipster joints I’m all in! I felt like I was the customer and not an intruder shunned for not knowing what the hell a boquerone was. They take credit cards and reservations. The food was solid, there are good beer on tap (including a Dieu du Ciel, Rosee D’Hibiscus, Belgian Wit which I am drinking right now) and the decor is unique but welcoming. I plan to come back to tackle the whole fish ceviche or octopus and maybe the tripe stew. I’ll pass on the horse however.
In the end, Dr Seuss said it best:
One fish, Two fish, Red fish, Blue fish,
Black fish, Blue fish, Old fish, New fish.
This one has a littlecar.
This one has a little star.
Say! What a lot of fish there are.
Yes. Some are red, and some are blue.
Some are old and some are new.
Some are sad, and some are glad,
And some are very, very bad.
In particular, from a fish perspective,both the mojama and boquerones were bad ass. Blue fish is attentive and makes a mean drink. Not bad for a place where, without the help of red fish, I would have ordered a bunch of other things which may or may not have been just as good. In the end, I guess I’ll have to come back and find out. This bar is a little star.