Halibut à la Plancha, Medley of Sautéed Vegetables, Crème Brûlée
Occupation: Director of Admission at High School
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Isa
Reviewed Isa: Tuesday, September 20, 2005
Isa restaurant, located in the Marina district, was my selection for Check, Please! Bay Area. The food is French with an Asian influence and served as small plates which are meant to be shared family style.
My group of four shared twelve dishes between us. The dishes were: Dungeness crab salad ($11), heirloom tomato salad ($9), butter lettuce salad ($8.50), lobster broth ($10 for two people), seared yellowfin tuna ($13), potato-wrapped sea bass ($15), seared foie gras ($16), pan-roasted Fulton Valley chicken ($13), truffled risotto ($13), sautéed pea shoots ($6), flourless chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream, and crème brûlée.
Isa has a three-course prix fixe menu for $22.25 before 7pm. The choices are marked with an asterisk, and our server was nice enough to manipulate our course selections so six of the above dishes (including the two desserts) totaled $44.50. The total cost for four people was $216.00, including coffee, dessert wine, tax, and tip. One dining companion brought a bottle of wine — corkage was $20.00 — but we reviewed the wine list and found it to have a small but good selection with average prices. The small plate concept makes dining at Isa more expensive than restaurants with similar food, but I always enjoy tasting a little bit of everything brought to the table, and that style of eating is encouraged here.
The taste of the food is phenomenal. The heirloom tomato salad with arugula and goat cheese was seasoned with large grain salt. You would bite into a sweet chunk of heirloom tomato and then the flavor would intensify when you crunch into a grain of salt. The crab salad was flavored with a lemon dressing and had pieces of mango and Fuji apple accenting the crab. The butter lettuce acted as a simple cup that held chunks of pear, Roquefort cheese, and candied walnuts. My companion and I shared the lobster broth, which had small chunks of lobster and a couple of sweet prawns. The broth was intensely flavored, and my friend thought it was a bit on the salty side. The highlights of my meal were the foie gras and the chicken. The foie gras is salted and seared just the way I like it. It is served with a chunk of a sweet custard brioche toast that I could eat for breakfast every day. The accompaniment was mangoes, and the fruit balanced the foie gras perfectly. The pan-roasted chicken is an extraordinary chicken dish. Two pieces of meat are plump and juicy in the middle, yet perfectly crusted on the outside with the skin being crispy. The truffled risotto was covered with a medley of different mushrooms and lightly dusted with aromatic truffle.
Luke Sung, the young owner and chef, has done a great job with food. During this visit, which did not differ much from past visits, the service was lacking and mediocre at best. Isa is a house that was converted into a restaurant. The backyard is tented, lit with small Christmas lights, and has propane heaters throughout the dining area. It is intimately lit and with the tented ceiling, the noise level is quiet. Overall, the food at Isa is excellent, and I would recommend the restaurant to everyone. It is the place for me to bring out-of-town guests.
Occupation: Music Promoter
Favorite Restaurant: Antica Trattoria
Reviewed Isa: Saturday, September 24, 2005
I keep thanking the food lords for the evolving small plate trends as my eating habits and inability to make decisions are a perfect fit for sharing with my dining companions. The problem is, I always want everything on the menu. And just about everything on the menu that I tried at Isa proved to be worth every forkful. This is a wonderful place in the Marina that has been around for several years now, and judging by the size of the crowd, it has not waned in popularity. While the space is not huge, I never felt stuffed in a corner or feared being trampled by rushing waiters or other diners. The front room, which consists of a modern spread of tables, is narrow and leads to the outdoor, covered, tented patio, where I have sat several times before. The feel of the restaurant is a simple, casual elegance made even more casual with the style of the outdoor patio and sporadically-placed heat lamps. Isa also has a distinct feeling of being a contemporary French bistro.
Our waiter and the service that followed were way above average. With me were relatives in town from Chicago, and I wanted to make a good impression, while showing off the food jewels of the Bay Area. We all agreed that the service of our waiter was superior in key areas: the ability to describe both the food and the wine list, and the ability to decipher what our tastes were, and how to combine the right plates and wine. The recommendation for the wine that we ultimately chose was right on target — it complemented our food while keeping to a reasonable price point. The selection, a wonderful and full-bodied 2000 Old Vine Zinfandel, had a light smoky flavor, which was rounded and full, and so good that I ordered an extra glass to finish the last plate we ordered. Our food came out in a timely manner, starting with the appetizers of a cold salad of Dungeness crab/celery/mango/Fuji apple. The simple vegetables and sweet fruits in their subtle, savory combination made my mouth and stomach feel equally refreshed and also tantalized. The other salad, a more ubiquitous item, with lettuce, candied walnuts, and Roquefort blue cheese was also superior with each ingredient standing out in its own qualities and mixing perfectly with the others.
Several of the main courses were outstanding. Stars should be given for the Halibut à la Plancha — the white fish is seared on all sides and then baked to perfection with beets, orange, Champagne vinegar, and cilantro. The second fish was a potato-wrapped sea bass, where the potato acted as a crust. Each bite of the thin-crusted potato with the fish created a soft and buttery melt-in-your-mouth experience. Both these dishes made me exercise strict discipline in resisting a second order. A pasta — Tortiglioni, with crushed black truffles, tomato, basil, and Parmigiano-Reggiano — was so wonderfully pungent, it felt like my entire mouth and nose were covered in the perfume of the truffle with each bite. The waiter did make one mistake with our order, and a plate of veal sweetbreads accidentally arrived on our table. Never one to pass up an opportunity to try something new, I asked to keep the dish. The soft meat of the sweetbreads in a mushroom sauté was delicate and succulent, and the rich gravy was hearty and satisfying. The one drawback was the dessert. A big chocolate lover, I found the flourless chocolate cake somewhat dry and maybe even a bit overdone.
Knowing that the plates are both interesting and satisfying, I will continue to put Isa on my top list of places to dine, both for out-of-town friends and groups of locals looking for a quality dining experience. I look forward to a return meal in the near future and was sorry that it had been this long.
Occupation: Veterinary Nurse / Actress
Favorite Restaurant: Salang Pass
Reviewed Isa: Thursday, September 21, 2005
We arrived at Isa and had a little trouble parking, but it wasn’t too bad. We were seated promptly; I had made reservations. The table was nice, and the heat lamps were wonderful, because there was a bit of a chill outside. Our server was very busy but acknowledged us promptly and was very professional and helpful throughout our meal. We started out with four oysters on the half shell that had a tasty orange-sherry sauce to go on top. The oysters tasted good and fresh, but they were quite small. I am aware, though, that the best oysters are around and available in the winter. I also ordered the heirloom tomato salad, which was very delicious. Then I decided on the Fulton Valley pan-roasted chicken that came with mashed potatoes, all of which was very tasty and prepared nicely. I also ordered sautéed vegetables, which were delicious and cooked perfectly. I also ordered the potato-wrapped sea bass, which was good, but the potatoes were just a little greasy, but still very enjoyable. Next was dessert, and our server was very helpful and suggested the crème brûlée, which was the best I have ever had — DELICIOUS! The coffee was good and strong.
One of the outstanding features of the experience was the service, which was very, very professional and friendly. The only thing that made me uncomfortable was the artwork in the restroom, which was in association with foie gras and had ducks running around while being chased by a woman on a bike. It disturbed me because I am opposed to the dish. But the majority of the experience at Isa was enjoyable and fun. I would recommend the restaurant to friends who like French food. I might return to the restaurant if they did not serve foie gras.