Photographs by Danny Kim
In this era of low-risk burger bars and glorified pub food, there’s something to be said for quirky unpredictability and the thrill of the new. At least that’s what the merry band of Manhattan food pilgrims I was dining with were telling themselves as we huddled around the table at Taavo Somer’s quirky, unpredictable, singularly interesting new Williamsburg restaurant, Isa. On my first visit to the snug corner space on Wythe Avenue, I’d enjoyed a plate of fried pigs’ tails, and the melting, delicately crisped skeleton of an entire sardine. But those dishes were gone now, replaced by creations with runic names like “sunchoke cream” and “smoked yolk, spelt, sorrel.” There was the image of a gorilla head on the front of the day’s menu, and as a waiter arrived, we peered at this document in the flickering candlelight, looking, I later imagined, like tourists in Tokyo puzzling over a subway map.
Unlike Somer’s Manhattan restaurants (he and his partner run the popular Freemans and Peels), Isa (“Father” in Somer’s native Estonian) has not been heavily publicized. Somer did much of the carpentry in the beamy, comfortable space himself. His chef, Ignacio Mattos, also comes to Brooklyn from Manhattan, where he was the chef at the venerable Italian restaurant Il Buco. Mattos is a proponent of the local, highly stylized haute forager cuisine popularized by the Danish chef René Redzepi, and in coming to Brooklyn, he and Somer have done what artists do when they move from the towers of Manhattan to the hinterlands. They’ve exchanged high rents and glitter for the freedom to pursue their own quirky ideas and experiments at a languid, agreeably neighborly pace.
Or so I thought to myself as I sipped a pleasantly buzzy creation called the Brain Hammock (bourbon, apples, plus a rim of bee pollen around the glass) and contemplated my steamy bowl of sorrel-and-spelt soup. The floating sorrel leaf in this bracing concoction hid a perfect orb of smoked egg yolk, which mingled deliciously with the broth when you mixed it with your spoon. This dish came to the table with a serving of soft persimmons, shaved fennel, and an herb granita, and a helping of calamari that Mattos grills over wood coals and serves in a rich squid-ink-and-pil-pil sauce. There was also a disk of shimmering red, impeccably tender beef tartare on the table, folded with sunchoke purée and served with flaxseed and crème fraîche, and a nourishing bowl of barley porridge laced with walnuts and Camembert, which we mopped up with wedges of house-baked Estonian bread dotted with caraway seeds.
“This is like highly refined lumberjack food,” someone said as we dug into a sizzling flap of pork steak garnished with yogurt and sprigs of purslane. On my next visit, the pork steak had been replaced, sadly, by an inert lump of codfish, decorated with iridescent shavings of radish, and a hunk of rubber-skinned chicken that tasted like it had spent far too long in a sous vide bag. The sugary confit of duck leg alone was almost worth the trek across the river, however, as were the desserts, which, on this mild Williamsburg evening, included an icy passion-fruit palate cleanser tinged with a wash of white chocolate, and a multitextured confection of grapefruit curd, pistachios, and matcha tea so weirdly exhilarating that a couple of the grizzled food fanatics at my table took out their phones and snapped pictures of it.
The amateur food photographers are also out in full force these days at Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria, the popular, painstakingly rusticated market-restaurant spinoff of Mattos’s alma mater, Il Buco, on Great Jones Street. In the tradition of rustic-market-restaurant spinoffs everywhere, this one offers carefully curated dry goods in the Alimentari grocery section up front, along with a butcher display stocking boutique cured meats (admirably smoky, feathery strips of salumi “Toscano,” de rigueur blocks of lardo), and racks stuffed with loaves of Italian bread baked in-house. As at Mario Batali’s Eataly, you can purchase these goodies to take home, or sample them and other delicacies at the Vineria wine bar and restaurant on the premises, which serves lunch and dinner from an open kitchen in the back manned by chefs wearing orange Italian bicycle caps. (There’s a good breakfast, too, served in the Alimentari.)
Some of the most respected gastronomes in town have compared their meals at this precious little restaurant to ones they’ve enjoyed in Italy itself. If you stick to Justin Smillie’s beautifully balanced pastas (try the twirls of Southern Italian “busiate” pasta enmeshed in anchovies, tomatoes, and mint) or the ribbons of roast porchetta (best enjoyed at lunchtime stuffed inside a filone roll), that may be true. But like the fried rabbit at most places around town, the fried rabbit here tastes like bony fried chicken, and the frizzled artichokes I ordered one evening were so soggy by the time they were placed in front of us that they tasted steamed. The salt-roasted branzino is a minor work of art, however, and so are one or two of the desserts, in particular the snow-white panna cotta, which is drizzled with a rich slick of aged balsamic vinegar and served in a simple snow-white bowl.