Isa in Williamsburg: Ambition Alone Does Not A Great Restaurant Make
348 Wythe Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11211 (at South 2nd; map); 347-689-3594; isa.gg/isa
Service: Slow and occasionally perplexing
Setting: Modern log cabin, dominated by a huge wood-burning oven near the front; comfortably rustic
Must-Haves: Cocktails, bread basket
Cost: Apps $10-14, mains $20-29
The bathroom at Isa, in Williamsburg, looks like something I'd remember from San Francisco's whacked-out science museum, the Exploratorium. Or an installation on the ground floor of London's Tate Modern. It's a wood-and-glass room, sort of a fractured dome, with about 19 mirrored planes angled in on you. You enter a room and more than a dozen warped versions of yourself--some far away, some inverted or rotated--stare back.
For about 15 seconds, it's an amazing head trip, a vertiginous "Where am I?" in the best of ways. But then you realize: this is just a bathroom, and you don't want mind games.
That's exactly how I felt about Isa as a whole.
There's obviously a great deal of thought put into the restaurant, from Taavo Somer (Freemans, Peels) and chef Ignacio Mattos (Il Buco). And a lot of intentional quirk. The room is inviting and rustic, warmed and perfumed by an enormous wood-burning oven; while the photocopied, garishly colored menu looks like azine cover from 1995. On that menu are dishes that change daily, handwritten in descriptions like "sunchoke cream, chestnut, dust." That particular dish's name, on one visit, was scrawled between a black-and-white photo of a gorilla, and a separate black-and-white image of that gorilla's ear. That sunchoke cream is a dessert, by the way, which the menu didn't indicate. The waitress sighed wearily when we ordered it. "No, you order dessert after the main meal." Ah. Somehow reading "sunchoke" and "dust" hadn't tipped us off.
Let's start with the good news. Many of Dan Sabo's cocktails ($12) are quite tasty, a good way to kick off a meal, particularly the kokopelle, a mezcal-based drink deepened with stout syrup and mole bitters, with chipotle to add a note of spice and red berry liqueur to cut all those smoky, earthy elements.
The bread basket ($4) is a must-order, the one thing on the menu—well, the one good thing on the menu—that I'm still thinking about long after. That oven is put to good use here. There's a sourdough and a rye-and-seed loaf, the former with a remarkably crisp crust and lovely, stretchy innards, the flavor a balance between tangy and charred. Slather on the butter, warmed to a spreadable temperature and topped with caraway and fennel seeds, black pepper and grey salt. It's good enough to forgo another course for. The darker loaf is pleasantly dense with a nutty and faintly sweet flavor, and soaks up butter just as readily.
That oven's used again for the calamari ($14), served whole in a dramatic fashion, stretched across the plate like a model reclining on a chaise lounge for a painter's canvas. It's a bit tougher than we thought it might be, and lacked textural contrast—uniformly chewy all the way through, without any crisp bits to add interest. Breadcrumbs helped on that account, but with such a massive squid to get through, didn't totally solve the problem. Still, points for the tobiko-laced cream and squid ink sauce, both in flavor and presentation.
The diver scallops ($13) were presented with similar drama, but unfortunately less success. The rice vinegar ice (frozen, then shaved) served its intended purpose too well; we found each slab of scallop cold to the point of being almost frozen, its flavor somewhat masked; tiny balls of raw apple seemed extraneous, neither particularly appealing with the rice vinegar nor a sensible pair for the scallop.
A broth ($10) disappeared quickly from our table on a cold night, a consomme made from duck bones and adorned with smoked yolk, sorrel, and spelt. The broth itself is smooth and savory, easy to sip down. The yolk adds richness but, in our bowl, any smoke flavor didn't quite come through; and the sorrel was a bit unwieldy. Getting everything together in one bite was difficult, and didn't necessarily result in something better.
The delicate, light sweet potatoes served with the liver ($10) were one of the best bites we had over the course of the meal, roasted sweet potatoes well-seasoned and turned smooth and creamy with the addition of milk. However, the liver that lay next to them didn't get finished. Though it had a decent sear, it was unappetizingly dry in the middle, tough in a way that did it no favors. Coffee beans and puffed rice added a crisp element that we appreciated with the sweet potato, but didn't help the liver.
"This is, um, the barley porridge," our waitress mumbled as she set this dish down and beat a retreat. As it turned out, it was a pretty good bowl of barley porridge; I'm a believer in savory applications of this sort of food, and it managed to be creamy and savory without feeling overly heavy. Thing is, it cost $20. We brought back the menu after this one was set down in front of us, thinking we must have read the menu wrong, or missed something. Were there black truffles, to justify that price? Caviar? Shavings of dried virgin baby octopus? Nope. Twenty dollars. Camembert, sure, but that integrated so fully it was hard to tell it was there.
The firm white flesh of the cod ($28) dish was one of the highlights of the meal; and the pil pil, the emulsified oil of that fish's bones along with olive oil and garlic, a smart accompaniment. But its limp skin detracted from our enjoyment, and the nearly raw potatoes it was served with, still further. A nearly $30 entree should yield more rewards than four bites of fish with weak supporting players.
Ditto the $29 duck, roasted until it was, unfortunately, tough enough that muscled sawing with a steak knife was necessary. Beets had the same problem, achieved in a different way: undercooked to the point that they were uncuttable, edible only by picking up and munching, which no one cared to do. The "dirt" served with it (charred hay, trumpet mushrooms, cocoa nibs) led a dark, earthy backdrop to the root veg, but when your beets seem essentially raw, seeing "dirt" on the exterior isn't exactly encouraging.
Unless we explicitly asked the waiters as they delivered a dish, each one was presented without much explanation. Which is fine if you're serving, say, steak, but a little less fine when some elements are not easily identifiable—such as in the "sunchoke cream, chestnut, dust" ($11) dessert. I'm a fan of desserts that are restrained in their sweetness, that emphasize flavor rather than sugar. But this sunchoke was almost inedibly bitter, and of a texture that recalled a wet, loose foam—like the super-airy milk froth on a Starbucks cappuccino. Textural problems also plagued the somewhat grainy grapefruit curd with pistachio matcha ($11), elegantly plated but bitter, the flavor of matcha nearly overwhelming the other elements.
In both cases, we felt the desserts were all thought, but lacking on execution. And that sums up most of our meal at Isa. There were high points, to be sure: bread, calamari; the broth and porridge. But even some of the better dishes were pricier than we thought sensible; and some of the others, simply not appealing.
We'd consider going back to try the sardine skeleton and other dishes that've been written about extensively, which were not all available on our visit. Eric Asimov at the Times seemed to feel that the restaurant's faults were more than made up for by its eccentric ambition. But based on our visit, we'd say the latter couldn't justify the former. We're all for experimentation; all for novel flavors and unexpected twists, dishes that we'd never think of. But only when they're executed in a way that makes us want to eat them again. At Isa, unfortunately, that wasn't always the case.