My background in exploring Spanish Cuisine
A few years ago, my parents booked a trip to Barcelona with great excitement and a little bit of trepidation. They are very good travelers and had the sightseeing spots all laid out. However, they were drawing a blank as to what Spanish food they should be seeking out beyond seafood paella. What distinguishes good Spanish “ham and cheese” from its Italian and French counterparts? What would an “authentic tapas” restaurant look like?
When I tried to explain, I realized that my own understanding was pretty limited; French and Italian references are still much stronger in my head and in the general North American zeitgeist. I had been to Madrid once, but as a naïve youth who cared more about sticking to a budget and not getting lost than I did about seeking out good food. I eventually messaged my friend Hana for assistance (she had just spent a year in Barcelona) and she put together a fun list of restaurants and “essential dishes” for them and they had a great time (here is her guide to Barcelona!).
I have learned a few notable things about Spanish food since then. First, as a broad generalization, it is more acidic and less spicy than many other cuisines. You will see some heat here and there, but the delicate flavours are highlighted best when the heat is not too overpowering. I also know this sounds like a strange explanation, but I feel that part of that may be because some people sometimes conflate Spanish and Mexican food because of the shared language (case in point: they both have an iconic “tortilla” in their cuisine, but they mean very different things).
Second, some Spanish restaurants are tapas restaurants, but many are certainly not. Originally, the term tapas referred to little dishes you might have with your drink (with the plates literally placed on “top” of the glass to prevent flies from taking a dip in your beer). However, this term in the general culinary world has really evolved (some may argue abused) to the point that it could refer to anything that is served on a smaller plate than you might expect.
Third, there’s a time and place for paella, the national dish of Spain, but it’s usually at lunch (at least in Spain) and is not usually a necessary component of your Spanish meal. If we want to continue on the theme of abusing terminology, it is unfortunate that the paella (like its cousin risotto) is often used to describe/disguise mushy plates of mixed rice. A proper paella should have a distinct yellow colour and fragrant flavour thanks to the use of real saffron, and a beautiful crisp crust from proper cooking in the pan, called the soccarat. Finally, there are many versions of this dish out there, many of which do not feature seafood.
Short of actually visiting Spain, there are several restaurants in Toronto that can transport you close enough. The two most notable are sister restaurants Bar Isabel and Bar Raval – the former being the cozier, more traditional sit-down restaurant, with the latter being the more glamorous architecturally stunning tapas bar. I have alternated between both whenever I get an excuse, and the latest came in the form of an invitation to go on a fun “Estrella Damm Culinary Journey” earlier this month. My dad happened to be in town, so it was the perfect opportunity to enjoy the cuisine together now that we both had a stronger understanding of it.
With all this background in mind, this is what we ordered at Bar Isabel.
It goes without saying that we had to start with the star of the evening, Estrella Damm, the ubiquitous beer of Spain. Originating in Barcelona, circa 1876, it’s an easy-drinking, easy-pairing beer made with 100% Mediterranean barely, rice and hops. We later ordered some wine as well, but chose most of our dishes based on the beer pairing.
Bar Isabel features the following essential items: homemade bread (served with olive oil), Marcona Almonds, Manzanilla Olives, and Pan con Tomate, served with or without Boquerones (anchovies). The Jamón (categorically, Spanish cured ham) section is also worth a look. Depending on your budget and expectations, you can order the standard Jamón Serrano for $19 or the Jamón Ibérico de Bellota for $75, both in 75 g portions. The former is made from a common white pig, while the latter more prestigious variety is made from the Black Iberian pig (and is reflected in the price). Cheese is also available to pair with the meats.
Now, there’s an item that’s not on the standard menu, but it’s almost always listed as a special appetizer – the croquetas – most traditionally combining jamón, morcilla (blood sausage) or bacalao (fresh cod) blended with béchamel sauce before breaded and deep fried. These are hard to make at home, and so satisfying to eat in any restaurant or tapas bar, especially with a beer.
We ordered some croquetas accordingly, along with the Pan con Tomate (con Boquerones).
The Main Courses
Next, we ventured to the pickles (conservas) and vegetables sections. If you’re wanting to play it safe, the Patatas Bravas is an easy choice – shallow fried potato cubes with a drizzle of garlic mayonnaise, smoky paprika and tomato-based sauce. Another easy choice is the charred shishito peppers. In Spain, you might find another variety – Pimientos de Padrón, but the Japanese Shishito is easier to find in Canada and has a very similar look and taste. Though generally pretty mild, statistically, one to two out of 10 will be a bit spicy, which makes eating these a fun game of Russian Roulette. If you’re feeling more adventurous, try the seasonal veg offering; we ordered a fried garlic scape dish served with a Romesco sauce and it was outstanding.
Unless you have any allergies, you must order something from the seafood section. You can dip your toe into the waters with either the Sea Bream Ceviche and Chips, or the Shrimp al Ajilillo (garlicky oil). However, I strongly recommend ordering the Grilled Octopus. You have the option to order a whole, half and quarter option. I could not, for the life of me, figure out what that meant in size at first. Finally, when the quarter version came out with two tentacles, I realized that of course, this is all mathematically based on an octopus having exactly eight legs. The octopus is tender and perfectly charred, and served at the moment with braised dandelion greens and a creamy sauce.
From the meat section, we went with the Pork Secreto with Chorizo spice. Served with a bit of honey on the side, the sweet and salty dish (which is not at all spicy in case the name is throwing you off) was the perfect pairing for beer. They also have some great (beef) steak options as well.
Finally, if you have room (which we didn’t), the only dessert they have had on their menu for years is their famous Basque Cake with Sherry Cream, which I have thoroughly enjoyed before. Some may argue that this is the only dessert they could ever need!
Thankfully, even though dining in Spain starts much later (usually at 9:00, 10:00 or even 11:00 PM), Bar Isabel runs on “standard hours” and is open for indoor dining from 5:00 PM to 11:00 PM, Monday to Friday, and from 3:00 PM to 11:00 PM on Saturdays and Sunday. They’re located at 797 College St, Toronto, ON.
If you’re looking for more inspiration, check out the other restaurants in the GTA participating in the Estrella Damm Culinary Journey (they’re not all Spanish, but all respectable), taking place throughout the month of May (the event officially ends May 31, but you can visit them anytime thereafter!). Thank you to Estrella Damm for hosting us (though all opinions expressed and direction of this article are entirely my own.)
P.S. My choice for paella in Toronto is Labora Restaurant, but they haven’t opened back yet for in-person dining since the Pandemic. I am optimistic that they will!
P.P.S. If you happen to be Spanish, let me know if I’ve gotten it right (or horribly wrong) and what else I should know about Spanish cuisine!