by Lee Lawrence
I love Mani Osteria--the vibe, the drinks, the food, though not how impossibly crowded it usually is. I also love the robust Mexican food offered at many local taquerias, though not their lack of ambience and fine cocktails. How could I fail to be excited, then, when I read of the new venture planned by Mani's owner, Adam Baru, and his chef Brendan McCall? Inspired by the home country of Baru's wife, the originators of the wildly popular Italianesque joint have decided to cross borders into Mexican territory with their new restaurant next door, Isalita.
Named, with a bit of spelling acrobatics, after Baru's daughter, Isalita has been, since its opening in late December, as jammed as Mani. Although thirty-somethings crowd the bar and tables, I've also spotted families and the discreetly graying. Whatever their age, Isalita patrons need a fat bankroll. Prices aren't cheap, but the stylish decor, expensive ingredients, and well-stocked bar explain why they aren't. At heart, the restaurant is a heightened, artful interpretation of a Mexican taqueria, gussied up in party dress, yet still casual and lively.
The artfulness starts at the bar, where premium tequilas and mezcales, offered singly and in flights, join wine, Mexican and craft beers, and an array of house cocktails. Except for the margaritas, particularly the zesty blood-orange one, we found most of these too sweet or too heavy-handed with flavorings; subtle balance is clearly not a goal. The aguas frescas, though, are wonderfully flavorful and refreshing, and you can always add a shot of tequila or vodka to one of those.
Although you'll likely wait for a table, you won't have to wait long for food once you order. The menu consists primarily of antojitos--snacks, street food, and light dishes quickly prepared and meant to be shared. (Plates arrive as they're ready, often in rapid succession, so stagger your order if you wish a more leisurely meal.) And at Isalita, these takes on Mexico's common dishes aren't presented in
common fashion but individually assembled in fine dining detail.
High-quality ingredients, careful execution, and bold flavors mean much of the food tastes as good as it looks. Hamachi ceviche, brightened with orange-habanero sauce, bits of citrus, and a lime granita, proved a nearly perfect balance of tang and sea once we scraped off the overly sweet ice. On a trio of miniature tostadas, crispy corn tortilla rounds and perfect avocado crescents sandwiched pristine red squares of raw tuna. Coctel de camaron, aka shrimp cocktail, layered thick, spicy tomato sauce with avocado puree, triumphing over any ketchup and horseradish version, though I wished they hadn't sliced the shrimp. Tiny cubes of pastel-colored melon combined with mint, chile, cheese, and lime in a refreshing salad. Queso fundido, accented with house-made chorizo, was the typical cheesy decadence. At $10, I'm not sure the truffle guacamole, gilded with garlicky truffle-huitlacoche (corn fungus) vinaigrette, sufficiently outshone Tmaz Taqueria's chunky onion-and-pickled-jalapeno-dotted dip at half the price, but that might be a matter of personal preference.
Everyone in my party agreed on the addictive quality of the fried plantains, cut into cubes rather than the typical slices and dusted with queso blanco and crema. We also devoured the elotes, two ears of corn grilled and liberally slathered with chipotle mayonnaise, queso fresco, crushed chile, and lime. The tortilla soup was warmly satisfying, thicker than the broth renditions we had eaten before, and deeply flavorful. We preferred the substance and heft of the miniature sopes--round boats of fried masa filled with spiced beef picadillo and topped with radishes sliced into hair-like julienne--over the equally diminutive gorditas--airy fried masa puffs lightly padded with chipotle chicken and dressed with avocado puree. Flautas, touted by waitstaff and friends, pleased some at the table, but I thought the duck filling got lost in the jumble of fried corn tortilla, avocado-poblano sauce, and radish-lettuce confetti. Fried chicken fans might want to try pollo feliz, "happy chicken," three crispy pieces generously slathered with a smoky, tangy barbecue sauce and garnished with crunchy slaw, though the night we ordered it the pieces were raw at their centers.
A long column on Isalita's menu lists an array of small, street-sized tacos, served three to an order. (The size of these tacos may surprise those used to America's bigger-is-better ethos, but it's typical of many taquerias in Mexico.) Over two visits my husband, friends, and I tasted all of them, and opinions differed on most of them, making for lively conversation. The two pork options--carnitas and al pastor--were the clear favorites. Most of us enjoyed the mushroom filling, spiked with huitlacoche and tomatillo, but one found it too earthy. We all declared the chipotle chicken surprisingly bland, and the lengua, or tongue, undercooked, but we split on the fried Baja fish tacos, some wishing the seafood had been grilled. The kitchen's efforts to refine the straightforward papas y rajas--potato and roasted poblano--taco resulted in a soupy, weirdly disagreeable filling that only a diehard vegetarian could embrace.
Isalita's desserts are uninspired, consisting largely of ice creams and gelatos from next door and a serviceable tres leches cake. After two visits on very busy nights concluding with hefty checks, I began to wonder if really delicious quesadillas, gorditas, and tacos from La Casita Taqueria, at a fraction of the cost, damn the sterile setting, might not make a more gratifying meal. Somehow, the gentrifying of Mexico's simpler foods--even recognizing the labor that went into many of the dishes--wasn't that compelling with decent storefront taquerias a few miles away.
Then I returned with a girlfriend on a relatively quiet night, and over a few leisurely hours at the bar we enjoyed a meal and an evening that made the price paid worth it. I ordered the melon agua fresca and had the bartender add a shot of tequila--refreshing and light. We ate thick, warm, crunchy chips with traditional guacamole and pico de gallo salsa, sprightly even with winter tomatoes. Spicy tuna ceviche was lovely with strings of pickled onion and sprinklings of toasted coconut, enhanced with tiny spoonfuls from the guacamole bowl. Sweet corn soup, garnished with a tiny huitlacoche quesadilla, was, hands down, the best dish on the menu, with deep, intense, concentrated flavor.
Beans and rice surprised us with unusual aromatic spices, and they paired splendidly with enchiladas rojas, two cylinders filled with chicken and coconut and enrobed in a spicy, complex dried chile sauce. The bartender, seeing the extra sauce in our enchilada dish, ordered us house-made flour tortillas, and we finished our meal making tacos of beans and rice, garnished with that delicious enchilada sauce and pico de gallo.
Who needed dessert--and who needed to be anywhere else?
341A E. Liberty Street
Tues.-Thurs. 4 p.m.-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 4 p.m.-11 p.m., Sun. 4 p.m.-9 p.m. Closed Mon.
Small plates $3-$13, soups and salads $8-$9, tacos $7-$12, "medium" plates $11-$14
Wheelchair access via the lift at Mani Osteria
[Originally published in March, 2013.]
On March 7, 2013, Katie Whitney wrote:
I had almost the same experience at Isalita--thinking it was good but then regretting it slightly when I got the bill! However, I think it would be a lovely place to linger over drinks with a friend. It's officially on my to do list.