Tag Archives: tapas

Bar Raval: Tapas in Toronto finally grows up

9 Apr

Good Spanish food. Wood paneling. Surprisingly, these things are related – they make me very happy, and they both exist in spades at Bar Raval. Grant van Gameren’s newest establishment demonstrates that food inspired by the Iberian Peninsula is here to stay – he apparently spent the equivalent of a moderately equipped Ferrari on said wood paneling! I definitely couldn’t miss out on a stop at Bar Raval on my Easter weekend visit to the centre of the universe.

Bar Raval has garnered significant praise for both its food and its interior design, so expectations were high. It’s been a while since a Toronto restaurant has brought me to culinary coitus when the hype was so great, but Bar Raval did just that. When I walked through the doors I immediately realized two things. First, Bar Raval shares very little of the edginess of its eponymous neighbourhood in Barcelona, but it more than makes up for it with an interior design that truly propels the Toronto restaurant scene forward. Second, the kitchen has done what very few Toronto kitchens do – churn out exceptional versions of traditional pintxos and tapas (think croquetas or simple plates of slightly sweaty Manchego) while displaying playful innovation in other dishes (the dulce de leche spiked with piment d’Espelette, for example).

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Working furiously behind the pass is Grant van Gameren, one of Toronto’s foremost meat men and chef extraordinaire.

This ability to respect the tradition of tapas is incredibly important, and it means respecting not only the food but also the way it is served. Sadly, the Spanish-food craze has led far too many restauranteurs to slap the word “tapas” on dishes that are simply not so, and to charge a premium for the privilege of eating off of a microscopic plate. Many restaurant-going Torontonians have been taken in by this trickery, and falsely believe that they should be going to a tapas bar for dinner because tapas means “stuff yourself with more plates of food because they are smaller”. Bar Raval is likely the first “fashionable” establishment to buck this trend. There are no sprawling tables for ten. The layout encourages standing instead of slouching. A giddiness-inducing array of food is laid out on the main bar. Seafood and cured meats figure prominently. In short, Bar Raval is actually a tapas bar.

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No finer thing has likely been hewn out of the wood of a mahogany tree.

A sampling of the food confirmed that Bar Raval pays proper homage to the tapas bars that line the narrow streets of Barcelona and San Sebastian. I can state with much conviction that the croquetas are the best I have ever had. Anywhere. The anchovies dressed in olive oil had a complex flavour profile that went beyond the merely salty. The octopus pintxos were piled on delicious, dense bread and dressed with a fresh, bracing citrus concoction so bright that I was instantly transported to the warm streets of the Raval itself. These were all dishes that lived up to the true meaning of the words “tapas” and “pintxos”, not merely smaller portions of what would have been a dinnertime main course.

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The most perfect croqueta in the world, accompanied by a plate of olive-topped anchovy fillets simply dressed in floral, herbaceous olive oil.

The ambiance matched the food. The crowd cut across the entire spectrum of Toronto’s population, from families with babes in arms to hipsters sporting superfluous beards. There were no hushed tones or fussy waiters. Grant has crafted an environment that actually promotes snacking as opposed to dining, which goes to the essence of a true tapas bar. With time, I hope that Bar Raval loses some of its new-car shine, because that is the only thing that stands between it and perfection. With a few shrimp shells on the floor and the appropriate patina on the bar, the transformation from Teatro to Toronto’s first genuine tapas bar will be complete.

4.31 out of 5 brown thumbs up.

Mata Petisco Bar: small plates, big soul

13 Jul
The roadmap for our feast

The roadmap for our feast

Roughly translated, petisco means tapas. Uh oh. Tapas/small plate/convenient-excuse-to-overcharge restaurants are opening in Toronto as often as a certain Teutonic country scored goals in a certain World Cup semi-final game. It’s not often that a new one promises a new twist on the concept, and actually delivers.

Cherry and I were invited to the media launch of Mata Petisco Bar, which purports to bring a South American style of small plates – driven by Brazilian flavours – to the western reaches of Parkdale. They actually manage to do it, and that’s because they’ve nailed down the one thing that ultimately matters the most: the ingredients. We thoroughly enjoyed navigating my way through the generous, seven-course tasting menu without having heard of, or being able to pronounce, a number of the ingredients. For instance, we had never heard of a malagueta pepper before, but I can tell you that it makes the single best spicy aioli I’ve ever had. Mata’s key ingredients – from the corvinha in the ceviche to the picanha cut of beef in the sliders – have clearly been chosen with thought and care in an effort to bring genuine Brazilian and South American flavours to their dishes. I could write forever about each of the seven dishes that were placed before us, but the highlights should be enough to get you on a streetcar/bike/pack mule to Queen and Roncesvalles.

Corvinha ceviche

Corvinha ceviche

The feast started with seafood. The lobster pastel on the amuse-bouche plate had an unctuous filling that was a great contrast to the crispy-fried shell, and the freshness of the lobster certainly came through. The corvinha ceviche really got things going – the fish was perfectly tender – not chewy or rubbery – and the cucumber added a necessary crunch to mirror the bite of the lime. The caipirinha that was served with the first courses was well balanced and an excellent complement to the bright flavours of the seafood.

The smoked chicken hearts were a good transition from sea to land. While they weren’t the stars of the show for me, I found that they were cleverly paired with an arugula salad – the peppery greens complemented the smoky meat. However, the cauliflower purée and ancho chilli oil did not pull their weight and added little to the dish.  When the picanha sliders came out, a collective “wow” rose from our table as we got a whiff of the passing plates. This was followed up by another, louder “wow” when we tucked into them. The picanha, a relatively fatty cut of beef popular in Brazil, was smoked in-house and was grilled to, well, melt-in-your-mouth. The cachaça-caramelized onions were the perfect topping to cut the fattiness of the meat. However, the aioli was the best part of the slider for me – the malagueta peppers added heat without overpowering the palate. This balanced flavour came through in the sliders, and the whole package was complex and immensely satisfying.

Barbecued octopus

Barbecued octopus

The sliders were followed up by a barbecued octopus plate that reinforced how well the grill minders have mastered their art. I was convinced that the cephalopod was cooked on a charcoal grill – the smell and flavour was distinctly smoky. However, they only have a gas grill, which makes their ability to get so much flavour out of the grilling process all the more impressive. The octopus was tender and not at all chewy, and the char on the outside gave it a delightfully smoky flavour. However, I think that the fantastic malagueta aioli would have been a better pairing than the balsamic and raspberry reduction and heart of palm puree that rounded out the plate.

The crescendo of the meal came in the form of a so-called “poutine” – a term which has been bent, twisted and stretched beyond all recognition by the restauranteurs of this city. Unfortunately, “carbs, curds and gravy” doesn’t have quite the same ring, so we’ll have to suffer through more bastardization of the term “poutine” until a Torontonian wordsmith popularizes a different, home-grown expression. Terminological ranting aside, Mata’s “poutine” was a fitting tribute to the essence of the dish. The cheese curds were incredibly flavourful and creamy – so much so that they managed to stand up to the smokey, velvety beef cheek slathered in red wine demi, and to the generous heaping of scallions that cut through the rich meat and gravy. A rich and flavourful end to a well-executed meal.

Beef cheek poutine (yes, we ate that little bit of cheek that tried to escape. Stupid cheek.)

Beef cheek poutine (yes, we ate that little bit of cheek that tried to escape. Stupid cheek.)

Despite groaning under the weight of all the fantastic food we had eaten so far, we attacked the avocado crème brulée with gusto when it arrived. Cherry had some trepidation about whether she would enjoy it, given her general indifference towards avocado. However, the dessert won both of us over because the traditional texture and flavours of crème brulée were respected, and the avocado notes were subtle.

Mata’s media launch was a great success and, given how well the kitchen executed such a wide variety of dishes, I’m really excited to go back and try their brunch offerings and the other items on the menu.

3.81 out of 5 brown thumbs up.

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