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Restaurants & Bars 1

Isa, Marina, SF (long)

Limster | May 26, 2002 05:10 PM

I ate at Isa last week, coming in late as the crowd thinned, and sat in the front of the restaurant. This modern space defined by elegant lines and hard surfaces, softened with by the glow of the lamps and enlivened by the motions and sounds from the nearby open kitchen. (A more serene garden setting is available at the back.)

Here, chef/owner Luke Sung spins out admirable French-centered small plates from the postage stamp of a kitchen in this hectic Marina restaurant, and his discipline is evident in the control of flavors that blend togther with glad simplicity. But I think he needs to grasp the reins more tightly when it comes to execution, because dishes seem to have lingered a tiny bit too long at the stove.

The plump scallops I got were perfectly cooked, with nice bits of caramelization on the surface. A soft call from bits of olives was plesant as were other light touches from the Mediterrenean. The pool of broth was nice, and a bit salt for SF, but might be just right for the Mediterrenean. The stumble occurs in the bright green cuts of aparagus on top that were overcooked. They were soft when they could have provided a sharp snappy counterpoint to the fleshy scallops.

Luke Sung is talented, and it shows in the ambitious dish of potato-wrapped bluenose seabass tinted with the light sourness of capers. This is a hard act to pull off, because the goal is have the thin crispy slices of potato contrast texturally with the fish. It follows that kitchen's timing must be impeccable: too little cooking, potatoes not crispy; too much, the fish is overcooked. Despite these potential pitfalls, the result were satisfying. The potatoes were indeed crispy and the fish was good, just barely holding on its juices. Delicious, and somewhat of a close call.

The refreshing dessert of a passionfruit soup was more easy going, and very easy to like, with the fruit touched off gently by delicate air of chopped mint. The chunks of sweet mango in it did steal the show from the dish's namesake, but I was very far from complaining.

Despite the heavt activity level of the restaurant, the waiter was very helpful and gracious in recommending dishes and steering me to a lovely glass of Alsatian riesling. Things get even more welcoming at the end, as nearby tables were cleared, and the waitstaff had more time to check in to see if everything was fine.

Prices are reasonable, with dishes going up to the mid-teens. (I spent $45 incl. tax and about 20% tip for the above.) Not a bargain by any means, but worthwhile if one is out to spend and taste a notch below a place like Chaz about 2 blocks away (of course, IMHO).

I think this place has great potential; I'd love to come again in a few years -- I'm expecting the kitchen to mature beautifully.

P.S. Stopped by Marinette a few doors away (the latest Bay Breads Boulangerie outpost). Large space, and they offer macaroons (cookies with delectable flavors and fillings) not found at Boulange de Cole. Pistacchio is an old favorite, but I also adore the sharp cool floral flavor of the lavender version.

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