It was opening night on the Friday when my friend and I decided to check out Bar Isabel on College, just east of Ossington. I didn’t know anything about the restaurant so it was going to be a completely new discovery experience for me. Though from all the buzz that I’ve heard, Bar Isabel is going to be a hot new addition to the little Italy restaurant scene.
797 College Street
Toronto, ON M6G 1C6
(416) 532 2222
Bar Isabel is housed in what used to be an old family style Italian restaurant called Grappa Ristorante. When I stepped in, I thought they didn’t renovate the décor at all—the whole place was covered in wood and coloured-mosaic tiles, which I had assumed was from the previous restaurant. It had a very cozy and romantic 60s feel. Though later I discovered that I was wrong about the renovation. We briefly chatted with Guy Rawlings, the general manager, and he told us that they actually spent almost 8 months to renovate the whole interior, built all the wooden walls and benches and installed all the glass mosaics from scratch. I was quite impressed by the amount of work dedicated to the décor so that all the tables and chairs fitted nicely into the feel of the whole place.
We tried some of their very exquisite cocktails as we were waiting. My friend had a strong bourbon drink called “Isabel Fashioned” while I went for a much lighter choice, the “Classy Gal”, a gin based drink. They have a pretty extensive cocktails and wine list—you’ll have no problem finding a good pairing with your food. I quite enjoyed my classy gal as it had a nice citrus taste to it, though it wasn’t as sweet/girly as I expected.
As the restaurant started filling up and getting loud, we consulted our waitress on what to order for the night. We went for some of the recommendations and were really glad we did. One of them was the anchovies, jalapeno, and chips starter—it had a very unique blend of flavours and we really enjoyed it. I felt a little adventurous that night and decided to try raw oysters for the first time. My friend assured me that the flavour was not much different from cooked oysters, so if I’m okay with that, it should be fine. The oysters tasted fresh and smooth with a pinch of fresh lemon juice and sea salt. I think I have been converted.
The fish streak continued as we also tried the fried whiting fish with brown butter. The fish was fried just right with the skin crispy but the meat still retained its moisture and elasticity. Don’t be deceived about how normal this dish is, the tasty flavours will definitely blow you away. To balance out all the seafood, we also got an order of the roast squash served on a bed of yogurt and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. Again, the unexpected combination of ingredients made the taste of the squash standout. Then lastly, but not the least, we had one meat dish which was the mixed grilled sausages. It came with leaves of watercress and grilled peppers, which again, goes surprisingly well together. There were three types of sausages, but unfortunately I forget what they were. That wasn’t the point though—what was important was how delicious they were. They tasted fresh and were also cooked just right, retaining the flavour and moisture. With this success, I definitely want to try the cured meats section next time since Bar Isabel’s owner, Grant van Grameren, is known for being an expert in the area.
By the end, we were stuffed, my face was glowing a bit, and had a blast chatting against the restaurant’s fun, loud backdrop. On our way out, our hostess, who we found out moved from Switzerland to Toronto recently, was an absolute doll. There was a bit of a mix-up at the beginning and she felt so apologetic that she kept stopping by at our table to make sure that we were doing okay throughout the whole night. We were very pleased with her care and attention for us and were happy to hear that she likes Toronto very much!
I can’t wait to come back and try out the rest of the menu and sip on more specialty handcrafted cocktails at Bar Isabel. P.S. They also have a really neat website! Check out the cool illustrations.
The Damage: $110 after tax and tip for two people
Hours: Wed-Sun 6pm-2am; Mon-Tue 8pm-2am