Vv Magazine’s Nicki Laborie weighs in on the hype surrounding Bar Isabel’s much-buzzed about new sister restaurant, Bar Raval.
Bar Raval is the talk of the town – truly. If you haven’t heard that Grant van Gameren, chef/owner of famed Bar Isabel, has finally opened his Spanish pintxos bar, perhaps you should consider it a sign you need to confront the cold and get out more. Along with Mike Webster (Bar Isabel) and Robin Goodfellow (Ursa), van Gameren opened the long-anticipated snack bar quietly (or at least tried to) on Valentine’s Day weekend. Taking over the space that used to house Teatro on College and Palmerston, the trio has given that corner an even stronger culinary powerhouse reputation, with Woodlot on one side and DaiLo and La Carnita on the other.
Entering the architecturally spectacular space, it’s confusing what to do when you arrive. There are 12 stools spread throughout the entire place, and the intricately-designed mahogany bar circulates all around the room making it almost dizzying. It’s beautiful and apparently a job that the woodmaker has refused to do for anyone else after breaking his machine to get the exact effect the boys wanted. Once you’ve gotten past the WOW factor of Bar Raval’s design though, you will likely have another WOW moment: when you realize that you will be dining standing up.
While I can appreciate the pintxos (snack) bar-hopping concept is what we would do in Barcelona — even the name stems from the prevalent bar/restaurant El Raval district – we are clearly not in Spain. We live in Toronto where below zero temperatures dominate nearly half the calendar year and we tend to have social lives that work around it. With most of our friends spread out across the city’s massive grid, the idea of having a handful of possible bars to “hop” to next on any given night at the drop of a hat sounds like a multi-kilometre trek in cab rides.
Mike Webster, one of the owners, immediately sees that our faces are a little surprised and comes over. Charming as all can be, he tells us stories about their journey building Bar Raval. When we ask about the seating situation, he continues to say that they don’t want anyone staying very long. To make that even clearer to their patrons, the stools are removed at night so that they can accommodate more people. Another WOW. After accepting that we would be eating while standing, we relaxed and enjoyed the moment. The food is as expected: excellent. Grant van Gameren has earned his reputation repeatedly impressing guests at Bar Isabel and his former establishment, The Black Hoof. The ingredients used are authentic and of outstanding quality, so we’re not dealing with a restaurant trying to imitate. The true flavours of Spain shine through.
Bar Raval has three menus: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Typically, it offers a variety of small bites eaten with toothpicks or on toast, and sweet Spanish breakfast pastries that are laid out on the bar through the day.
We tried the shrimp and cream pintxos, which was delicious; the octopus a la parilla (grilled), which was not as good as Bar Isabel but still good; the pig cheeks in cider tapas, a surprisingly-flavourful dish but not one I would order again; and the B.C. SideStripe shrimp, which I loved but — in the same breath — could repeat at home with this quality shrimp. Leaving the best for last, my date picked the sweetbreads bocadillo (sandwich made with baguette style bread); this mini slider packs an unforgettable punch of flavour combining tangy, buttery, salty, and crunchy. I will be back for you, dear sweetbread.
After this line-up, we were full (and felt the need to leave), so didn’t indulge in other fantastic-sounding and looking dishes, but the filet mignon a la planxa (grilled on a metal plate) is on my list for next time. The tender meat is definitely WOWing. In the end, the Bar Raval experience is a great one. The food is excellent, the owners are lovely — and all there working — and the design is, of course, striking. I love new concepts and think this city needs them. That said, the whole “standing room only” situation has me wondering how many people will be driven to go there as a destination restaurant. My recommendation (and obviously the owners’) is don’t go there for a meal. Go for a coffee and croissant in the morning, for a drink with a friend before or after dinner, or for snacks on a Saturday afternoon — but know that your experience will far from cost what it would in Barcelona (pintxos are typically 1Euro or sometimes free with drinks), and you are not welcome to stay all day or night.
I predict the local area just got lucky because if I did live nearby, popping over for a glass of wine and pintxos would make sense. But it doesn’t have the same appeal when I have to factor in travel costs and time just to get there and then not be able to sit down and experience the menu the way Grant’s fantastic food should be experienced. For that, I will keep going to Bar Isabel where, yes, it may be difficult to get a table but — once you have it — you can keep it.
Have you tried Grant van Gameren’s Bar Raval? Tell us your thoughts on “Standing Room Only: A WOW Experience At Bar Raval” in the comments below or tweet us at @ViewTheVibe.