Love can be lovelier the second time around.
The same can be said for careers and even restaurants. Take Isobel,
a new French-Mediterranean restaurant that opened in Brooklyn
Heights early this June replacing Tinto, a short-lived tapas
bar and restaurant.
Tinto had a great location on pretty Henry Street and talented sous chef Tony Raggiri, but tapas-style cuisine had seen its moment in the sun. Kevin Epstein, who owned Tinto and is now teamed with Ben Weiner (his daughter is Isobel), gave the space a makeover, revamping the former restaurant’s bright tiles and flashy colors into a cooler, more elegant "bistro by way of taverna" decor.
The walls are now painted a soft ecru. Simple pewter chandeliers illuminate the rooms. Tables are crafted of rustic wood and the comfortable banquettes, seating about 75, are covered in soft, brown leather.
Given the opportunity to invent the menu, Raggiri, now the restaurant’s executive chef, created dishes based on his childhood in Marseille and his training in restaurants throughout France and the Mediterranean. His menu includes many of the French classics you’d expect to find: pan-seared foie gras, charcuterie platters of assorted meats and cheeses, and a rich chocolate mousse.
For carnivores there are entrees of roasted chicken, a football-sized pork chop and filet mignon in a rich merlot sauce.
The menu emphasizes seafood with a raw bar, a delightful ceviche appetizer (raw fish marinated in lime or other citrus juice, the acid of which "cooks" the fish and firms the flesh, which is then served cold) and three fish entrees. When it comes to seafood - simplicity reigns in Raggiri’s kitchen. And, that is how it should be.
Start with a half-dozen Prince Edward Island oysters from the raw bar. Served over ice, the oysters are one part steely mineral tang and one part salty ocean wave. A squirt of lemon or a quick dip in the searingly hot house-made cocktail sauce and it’s easy to forget that it is 100 faint-inducing degrees outside the restaurant’s door.
Ceviche is another refreshing first course for a blisteringly hot evening. I was served fluke, a sweet, mildly flavored fish in four palette teasing sauces: marinated in corn, tequila and lemon juice with the surprise of tiny bits of jalapeno peppers; a pungent Asian-inspired soy sauce flavored with fresh dill, thin slivers of cucumber and lime; a creamy Mexican rendition with avocado, crisp corn kernels, chipotle pepper, lemon and lime juices; and a delicate sauce of roasted tomato, red onion, peppers, garlic and lemon juice.
Beef carpaccio, paper-thin slices of raw beef fanned over a plate like flower petals was splashed with a ginger and blood orange emulsion made tangy with lemon juice. Sections of blood oranges dotted the top of the beef slices and a healthy dose of freshly ground black pepper gave the dish a little heat.
I have not stopped raving about Raggiri’s striped bass. The fish is first pan seared, then briefly roasted in the oven. The result is a velvety, moist, big-flavored piece of fish with a satisfying, crunchy crust. The fillet is served over well cooked - not nearly raw as they’re often served - baby carrots, tiny zucchini and a few peas for color. Small morel mushrooms are sauteed and scattered over the fish imparting a woodsy, smoky note to the dish. Raggiri’s sauce, slightly tart and creamy, is a simple reduction of shallots, mushroom stock and just a touch of creme fraiche. It is an utterly beguiling dish.
The Moroccan vegetable trio - couscous lightly flavored with lemon zest, mint and cumin; a mildly seasoned (not spicy as stated on the menu) ratatouille of eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes and peppers; and a pretty vegetable terrine layered with carrots, cauliflower, peppers and broccoli is an attractive trio on the plate and won’t weigh you down on a hot evening, but comparing its mild flavors to the "wow"-inducing taste of that striped bass is like comparing Amy Grant to Janis Joplin.
For dessert, order the summer pudding, which resembles a whimsical little party hat - all frills of whipped creme fraiche and ruby-colored berries. Raggiri dips slices of brioche into blueberry coulis (pureed berries), then layers the slices with raspberries, tiny wild strawberries and blueberries. The brioche is moist from the coulis and sweetened by the berries.
Chocolate mousse is rich to the extreme - its cocoa taste deepened by the addition of mango. There is also a selection of four cheeses, a chocolate lover’s cake, gelatos and sorbets in summery fruit flavors and a feather-light espresso panna cotta in an almond milk sauce.
Hire charming waitresses who know every ingredient in every dish and can recommend wines from the large international selection of reasonably priced bottles; offer a setting that encourages diners to linger and serve dishes as heart thumpingly delicious as that striped bass. That is the formula that makes dining at Isobel so lovely - the very first time around.
Isobel (60 Henry St. between Cranberry and Orange streets) accepts Visa, MasterCard and American Express. Dinner entrees: $16-$24. Isobel is also open for brunch Saturdays and Sundays, from 11 am to 3 pm. For reservations, call (718) 243-2010.