In the days before I memorized the lyrics to every Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift song, I felt like I was totes missing out the most awesome music available on Earth. Everyone was talking about them and I had no idea the full scope of their greatness. I took the requisite time out of my life to thoroughly learn everything Bieber/Swift and join the world in seeing how they could provide me a fuller, happier existence. In much the same way, I felt compelled to visit Isa Bistro on Portland St. recently. They’ve been getting a lot of food media attention lately, but I had never been. In order to keep up with the food media Joneses, I went down with my wife to see what all the hubbub was about. I didn’t want to be left in the dark any longer about an eatery that seemed to have so much interest.
Upon our first steps into the place, I was pleased with the look of the restaurant. There were brick walls, a nice bar, and a generally interesting design that epitomized the term “bistro”. It felt big city cozy and quaint without any pretense. Just under a dozen bar seats and just over a dozen tables made it small to medium-sized by my estimates. We headed straight for the bar which had plenty of open seats since we were there early. I wouldn’t say the bottle selection was enormous, but it seemed to be carefully picked with some local options and a good variety of quality spirits. The draught beer selection followed suit with few options, but excellent ones.
We arrived just before happy hour ended, so we had a choice of a couple beer and wine specials for four and five bucks respectively. The wine specials were red or white which made it a relatively simple choice if one wanted some fermented grape goodness. Though it seemed everyone there was drinking a red, my wife defiantly chose the white which she preempted with an “I’m not picky.” The beer choices were Banded Horn Pepperell Luminaire and Rising Tide Ishmael. Maine Beer Company and Foundation brews rounded out the full draught menu, but I was headed for a happy hour Horn.
In a couple minutes our beer and wine were poured and delivered. The Banded Horn tasted great and was also less filling. We sipped and began to scan the list of food for items which suited our fancy that evening. The menu was a single page and divided into four categories – starters, mains, salads, and sides. As is often the case, I was in the mood for poultry or seafood. There was duck on the menu and a duck special available too, but no chicken. I was hoping more for a clucker than a quacker, so I turned my thoughts to ocean dwellers. The fish choices included escargot and octopus apps and a monkfish entree. I was taken by the Escargot – parsley butter, herbed breadcrumbs – because it was something I hadn’t had in a while, so ordering that became a certainty. As a plus, it reminded me of some Biggie lyrics…”Escargot, my car go, one sixty, swiftly”. My wife wanted to try the House Cut Fries with guajillo aioli which she graciously agreed to share.
The fries soon came out glistening and crispy. We accepted an offer of ketchup and cracked pepper for them. The escargot followed and was plated with one in each of four corners and the team captain decorated with sprouts in the middle. The slow-movers sat on rounds of bread and were topped with the crunchy crumbs. The parsley butter was partially covering the rounds and created an herbaceous green puddle on the plate. Without hesitation, I forked my way downward through the snail and bread. I then turned my utensil parallel to the plate and carefully rotated it in order to coat the sides of the bread in the greened butter. Making a snail trail to my mouth, I tried the bugger. It was superb. I got a crunch and some garlic right away. The bread was a perfect, soft base which held the butter quite well. The minimalist flavor of parsley added a great hint of herb without overpowering the natural deliciousness of escargot. My wife asked how it was. “Isa good,” I replied, completely hypnotized.
Next I got to the fries which Mrs. Portlandeater seemed to be enjoying. I tried one by itself and it was beautifully crispy. Then I dipped one into the aioli. I generally love aioli and this was no different though the guajillo added an extra element of flavor. It was so good, I considered spooning into my face, but thought that might be a little overboard. Instead of doing that, I dipped each tater stick, trying to get as much of the awesome addition on them as possible. Fortunately, the wife was eating more of the ketchup, so there was no shortage of aioli for me.
Without wasting any time, we finished our food and requested some waters in addition to our happy hour drinks to wash it all down. Then we got to choosing more. We were both unsure if the mains made the most sense or if starters, salads, and sides were the order of the day. She began leaning in the direction of Eggplant Lasagna – homemade pasta and ricotta, tarragon. I decided to switch it up and go with a salad and a side, choosing first the Cabbage Salad – pepitas, ricotta salata, honey lime vin. After that, I looked at the sides and came up with more potato, choosing the Potato Gratin with Swiss, bacon, and thyme. I don’t really think you can ever have too much potato in a meal, so it was a fine option.
It would be a bit of a wait before we got our food, so we passed the time by counting the bricks in the wall and playing the name game with Portland restaurants. Eventually, it was all delivered by the bartender. We accepted more cracked pepper on our items and got down to the serious business of eating. I first tried the cabbage salad for which I was pretty excited. There was a generous helping of purple cabbage – my fave – on top with what might have been butter lettuce on the bottom. Pepitas were sprinkled on and many small cubes of cheese were throughout with three cheese triangles also leaning against it. I tried a bite with all parts on my fork. The crunchy cabbage, delicate lettuce, and mild cheese were given significant pop by the awesome dressing. With a little honey sweet and a ton of super fresh lime, the vinaigrette was one of the best I ever had. All combined, it was the best salad I’d had in recent memory – just outstanding.
As my wife enjoyed her lasagna and ordered more wine, I continued nibbling. I really liked everything about my salad and was a little heartbroken when it was done. However, I still had my potato gratin in front of me to enjoy. The square, many-layered potato piece was topped with browned cheese and sprigs of thyme. The bacon was worked in there somehow though I didn’t see it with mine eyes. I cut into it and snagged a bite. It was quite tasty, though I felt it could have used a little bit more cheese. It was just so dense with potato, that the cheese was drowned out slightly. Still, it was excellent and well worth the price of admission.
Finished with our food, we wiped our faces clean and agreed to take a look at the dessert menu. I didn’t see anything that stood out to me, though I was fairly confident that everything would have been stellar. We decided to pass in the end as we were full enough with what was already eaten to that point. We asked for our bill and it came to just under $70. I hadn’t really considered the prices before I got there, but it certainly was fair for what we ate.
Once our tab was paid, we straightened out our ties, rearranged our hair, high-fived, and then made our way to the door. It had been a good meal…a very good meal. Isa had all the things one could want from a restaurant. Looking for great food? Isa does it. Want a beautiful, relaxed atmosphere? Isa does it. Want good service? Isa does it. Now it’s your turn to do it. Go there for yourself and see what’s happening. I promise you, Isa well worth it.
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