Unclear on the concept
This is the slow time of year for the restaurant business, with everyone broke and worn out from the holidays. Since rent and staff still have to be paid, there are some good promotions to be found. In particular, Opentable.com seems to be behind Dine Around Town month, where many places offer a four course prix fixe dinner for $36.95 and lunch for even less.
Sunday night we ended up at Isa, in San Francisco, with Bob and Nancy Munson and Sheryl and Ed Nagy, to take advantage of the offer. I enjoyed my meal, but this place doesn’t seem to understand the concept of a four course meal.
The restaurant is on Steiner Street in San Francisco, just off Lombard. I looks to me like it was two storefronts combined into one. There are one or two tables outdoors in front, a tiny dining area, a bar area, a miniature kitchen that does an incredible job of getting out the food, then, all the way in the rear, you enter a room with a retractable roof which is the main dining area. Because of the combination of the dine-around-town special, the holiday weekend and the football game (sob!), the joint was packed. The 6 of us were crammed in so tightly Ed wasn’t able to move and we had to adjust the tables just so he could sit properly.
Isa is primarily designed to be a small plates, tapas style eatery oriented toward French cuisine. That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t much mix with the four-course, prix fixe idea. I knew we were in trouble when the waiter told us that the plates were designed to be shared and would trickle out of the kitchen as they were ready. When it comes to my food arriving, “trickle” is not a word I want to hear. When everyone is to pick one appetizer, one first course, one entree and a dessert, the sharing and small plate idea just isn’t working.
We started with the soup–a pureéd potato-leek which was far too thin for my taste, although certainly flavorful. Those who chose the lobster bisque were certainly pleased.
My fears were starting to be realized–salads come out quickly, the mussels took 5 minutes more. I had a butter lettuce salad that was, let’s say, “professional”. The work of a journeyman. Nothing to write poetry about, just good solid kitchen craftsmanship. Gail had a crab salad that seem quite a bit better.
Now we sat for a bit. Quite a bit. Then most of the entrees came out. I had the spaghetti with Himalayan truffles:
The Himalayan truffle is a poor cousin to its French or Italian relative–in fact, tons of them are smuggled into Europe every year to be mixed in with the good stuff. It isn’t bad, per se, it just doesn’t have the deep aroma and rich umami flavor of the European variety. Still, it works very well on pasta and I enjoyed my dish.
Gail ordered the Petrale sole, and requested mashed potatoes instead of the roasted ones on the menu. In another example of a Isa being unclear on the concept, her dish arrived with roasted spuds, and side order of the mashed–for which they charged. At least they were good mashed potatoes.
Bob had the scallops:
It turns out that Bob likes brussels sprouts just slightly more than Mike Bandler does, so Nancy got to enjoy them. The scallops must have been great, because they disappeared in a flash.
Because Isa is tres Francais, the dessert menu included two cheese plates. Ed had the bleu while I enjoyed the goat cheese. Ed was driving, so I decided to take a look at the dessert wines, and found something I had never seen: Uroulat Jurancon
I asked the waiter about it, but he wasn’t sufficiently well trained to know, so he brought over the owner, who discussed at great length the semi-sweet properties of this specialty wine from the Languedoc region. I understood a tiny percentage of what he said but decided to give it a try, and was very pleased with the result. Uroulat Jurancon is light, as dessert wines go, and not as sticky sweet as port or PX. It went perfectly with my cheese and set off the meal wonderfully.
I liked this restaurant. The food is good, the facility is pleasant, the wine list is unique. Probably the only thing to avoid is dine around town week–it just doesn’t work with the style of Isa. That leaves you with 51 weeks of the year to enjoy a glass of Uroulat Jurancon.