08 April 2007

Dinner at Isa, San Francisco

Usually when we go on vacation, we find our restaurants just by wandering around. If we’re out shopping or sightseeing or just roaming and we see a place that looks interesting, we’ll see if the menu is posted. If that looks promising, we’ll make a note and stop back later for a meal.

But on our last two trips to California, we modified our strategy a bit. For our trip to L.A., we made an advance reservation at A|O|C. And for our trip to San Francisco, we actually made two reservations before we left home. On the day we arrived, we had a late reservation at Piperade. But after a long day of travel and hiking San Francisco’s hills and a little bit of jet lag, we canceled it and went to Café Claude. We could get in a little earlier, we’ve eaten there a couple times before, and they have a jazz combo that performs most evenings.

The other reservation we made from home was on Saturday night at Isa. It’s located in the Marina District, a part of the City where we’ve never spent much time, so chances are we never would have just stumbled upon it. Despite having a reservation, the place was packed when we arrived, and we waited more than a half hour for our table.

The dining room is … shall we say “cozy?” There isn’t much of a waiting area, and you can’t even have a drink at the bar because all of the bar stools were being used by diners. Inevitably, we struck up a conversation with an elderly couple who were waiting like we were. They were staying with friends who lived in the area. They said they’d eaten at Isa before and never had to wait. So maybe our experience was unusual.

When we finally were seated, there was a pretty boisterous group at the next table over. So it wasn’t exactly a quiet meal. Our server was friendly, but he had a little bit of a smug “I live in San Francisco” attitude. (I’m sure I’d have an attitude, too, if I lived in the City.) He explained to us the way they serve dinner at Isa.

1. Isa does NOT serve small plates. Our server emphasized it, and the menu repeats it. But all items are meant to be shared. “We simply like eating this way,” the menu explains.

2. You pick the items that sound good to you, and the kitchen decides what order to prepare them and bring them to you.

Since we had researched the restaurant before we arrived, we knew that was the schtick. We asked a few questions, our server made a few suggestions, and then we ordered. Our server suggested four items. But we decided we only wanted three.

We started with baked goat cheese topped with pesto, tomato, extra virgin olive oil & pine nuts. It was very tasty, and it was about the right size for the two of us.

The next two items were brought out at the same time. One was an order of scallops with black truffle jus and potato purée. The other was potato wrapped sea bass with brown butter, capers, lemon and parsley. Both were very creative and very tasty. My wife liked the scallops the best.

But I really liked the sea bass. The preparation was very unique. Thin slices of potato were overlapped to form sort of a large sheet. The sea bass was placed on the sheet, and it was wrapped over the fish. Then the whole thing was sauted and served with the brown butter sauce, capers, lemon and parsley. After our meal, we watched it being prepared in the open kitchen. It really was fascinating.

The evening wasn’t perfect. Having to wait when you have a reservation always is annoying. I wish it had been a little less noisy in the dining room. And the California attitude could have been toned down a bit. But the food was very creative and delicious. We found that three items were just about right for the two of us; we didn’t get too full and it wasn’t too expensive. But I think Isa might be better to go with a group of four or six. Then I think you’d get to sample more items without having to order too much per person.

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