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Isa’s $13 Giant Squid, Yoga Classes Woo Hipster Foodies: Review

February 22, 2012

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Feb. 22 (Bloomberg) -- Isa is a fine little farm-to-table restaurant specializing in wood-fired cooking. And yoga.

Vinyasa yoga, to be precise. Classes are held upstairs at the Brooklyn hotspot on Tuesdays and Thursdays before dinner.

Bodies stretch in one room while the kitchen fries sardine skeletons into crunchy marine breadsticks.

Isa isn’t the first culinary establishment to have a mixed exercise-epicurean arrangement. In Napa, California, Ubuntu has a yoga studio along with its Michelin-starred vegetarian fare.

It’s the sort of fashionable eccentricity one might expect on the Left Coast, though Williamsburg is catching up. Isa’s Taavo Somer, the bearded proprietor behind Freemans and Peels, knows this. The new place is packed with beautiful people warming up to barley soup with smoked yolk or barley porridge ($21) with Camembert and Treviso -- a cheesy, earthy risotto.

Diners who don’t finish that outstanding creation get the leftovers wrapped in a foil swan. Isa is endearingly odd, if a bit self-important: After one ambivalent review ran last year, the restaurant responded with a menu depicting the offending critic stabbing a knife into the heart of Brooklyn.

Mouse Menu

Other nights, menus are Magic Markered in the same, hard- to-read script as high school Battle of the Bands flyers. Fortunately, there are just 14 or so items among the a la carte offerings; a three-course “pouncing rodent” prix-fixe is $50.

Isa bills itself as “Brooklyn primitive, modern,” as good a description as any. Isa relies on a wood furnace to keep guests cozy while scraping swaths of grapefruit curd, matcha powder and lime sherbet.

Those who sit next to that furnace might feel a little cooked themselves. No matter; take off your jacket and guzzle a glass of fruity sparkling wine from the Jura; Isa boasts perhaps New York’s only wine list that’s heavily French yet lacking Champagne. Every vino is natural, without sulfites, resulting in heady, sometimes even offaly aromas.

Even a bold California red, the Coturri Sandocino ($14), veers off the beaten track, blending Bordeaux grapes like cabernet and merlot with Rhone varietals like syrah and then throws some American zinfandel in there too.

Cocoa ‘Dirt’

It’s the right pairing for the splendid duck breast ($29). The bird, with soft, silky fat, comes with fluffy celeriac puree, candy-like baby beets and black trumpet mushroom powder with cocoa nibs that the menu coyly calls “dirt.”

This is robust, northern, almost Nordic fare, courtesy of chef Ignacio Mattos. Other modern restaurants like to showcase whole animals; Mattos dares to serve whole squid ($13), head and tentacles attached.

The foot-long mollusk arrives brown and charred; the chewy beast eats like a steak. Dredge the flesh through a rich squid ink sauce that turns your teeth black. Clean up in the restroom, where the odd angled mirrors give it the feel of Tim Burton’s “Beetlejuice.”

Mind the kitchen when walking about, as it’s literally part of the dining room, with almost no boundary between client and cook. Platings are precise yet natural, as if a forest floor was tidied up by an interior designer.

Mattos takes a rectangular slab of pork, straighter than a ruler, and sears it medium rare. It’s a bit fatty but has almost as much flavor as the esteemed Iberico. Verdant circles of watercress and sorrel sauce gently cushion the oily sting of perfectly cooked mackerel ($26).

Power Tastes

Spotlighting dominant, powerful, almost unadulterated flavors, Isa isn’t for filet-mignon types.

Oysters ($13 for four) get their chill from a sour shaving of rice vinegar-infused ice and yuzu. Chicken wings shock the palate with fish sauce, salt and cilantro. The meat itself has a gamy, concentrated flavor.

Milder types will try the beef tartare, a thin circle of seasoned, grass-fed meat spiked with sunchoke cream for an unexpected sweetness. Double up on root vegetable madness for desserts ($11), where the same sunchoke makes a sweeter cameo as sorbet covered with yolk cream and ground-coffee “soil.”

Rating: **

The Bloomberg Questions

Price: Most dishes under $30; three courses for $50.

Sound Level: Tolerable, around 70-75 decibels.

Date Place: Yes.

Inside Tip: Super bread basket ($4) with caraway butter.

Special feature: Stellar juniper-berry spiked gin cocktail.

Back on My Own Dime? Frequently.

Isa is at 348 Wythe Ave., Brooklyn. Information: +1-347-689-3594 or isa.gg/isa.

Sound-Level Chart (in decibels): 51 to 55: Quiet enough to converse sotto voce. 56 to 60: Speak up, please. 61 to 65: Lean in if you want to hear your date. 66 to 70: You’re reading one another’s lips. 71 to 75: Heads turn because you’re yelling. 76 to 85: Ear-splitting din.

(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

--Editors: Jeremy Gerard, Jeffrey Burke.

To contact the writer of this column: Ryan Sutton in New York at rsutton1@bloomberg.net or qualityrye on twitter.com/qualityrye

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.


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