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Friday, September 7, 2012

Next Magazine - Isola

Isola Trattoria & Crudo Bar
9 Crosby St @ Grand St, (212) 389-0000,

Originally based on the dreamy, fantastical atrium in Jean Cocteau’s classic film La Belle et La Bête, Imperial No. 9 in the Mondrian Soho hotel became something of a kitchen nightmare. Star chef Sam Talbot left his post and several replacements followed. The menu that slowly lost its flavor during Talbot’s tenure has been entirely revamped and gloriously resuscitated by the hands of executive chef Victor LaPlaca—indeed, the newly dubbed Isola is now a fantastic night to remember. Much of the décor has stayed the same but LaPlaca, a native Sicilian, pulls his food inspirations from the Amalfi Coast and further reaches out to other Italian provinces.

A most extraordinary Isola Negroni led the way with Tanqueray Ten Gin, a touch of Campari and Carpano Antica stepping in for less casual sweet vermouth. A few of my friends took a sojourn with the Columbian Exchange, a decided step up from a margarita with fresh honeydew melon, lavender and lemon shaken up with Don Julio blanco tequila. Another dining companion was delighted to find Italian Peroni beer on draft and availed himself of its foaminess readily.

Truffled mushrooms topped a flat grilled special pizza and burrata cheese with squash blossom pesto occupied another pie. Warming, fluffy focaccia with salty taleggio cheese, sweet caramelized onions and fig jam tasted like a savory cake and rounded out the bulk of this carb fit.

To lighten things up, we took a dip into cool slices of hamachi with crispy shallots and a vibrantly verdant pool of surrendered avocado. Tuna in white balsamic vinegar shared a plate with intensely red, ripe watermelon, while octopus in an almond romesco sauce found kindred spirits in herbed aioli, peanut potatoes and zesty lemon. A Caesar salad rapidly followed, its grilled leaves rolled up like a scroll parchment with black olive-anchovy dressing and ricotta salata. Thinly sliced baby beets were finely featured with a burst of green pistachios.

Moving to mains, ravioli stuffed with porcini mushrooms were delicate love notes, embraced by a heartbreaking veal ragu. We didn’t know what to do with ourselves when the extraordinary, hefty, medium-rare sirloin showed up courtesy of meat maven Pat LaFrieda, with a skirt of rich juices bleeding into mushroom polenta and cured, truffled fatback. The whole affair was beyond anything and not even like steak. We found it rather more like slowly savoring an indecent, chewy caramel. We were simply ravished! What could whole branzino with perfectly seared skin do but hold its own quite swimmingly, with escarole and a sauce made with limoncello?

Frosty scoops of ices were endearingly served in paper cones with wooden spoons, just like summer days at the beach. Tangy tangerine sorbetti was our first choice, followed by chunky strawberry rhubarb and wildly absorbing cannoli gelati. Naturally, we didn’t stop there and got involved with butterscotch cake, done up with slowly simmered blueberries and peach jam. Tartuffo threw us into overdrive with fudge brownies, hazelnut gelato and creamy salted caramel reaching to the heavens. What an enchanted evening we had during our time in this garden.

Prices: Appetizers: $9-$36; Entrées: $17-$48; Alcohol:  beer, wine, full bar, specialty cocktails.
Short Order: Dining in the beautiful atrium at the Mondrian Soho hotel is nothing less than enchanting, with wondrous fare executed by executive chef Victor LaPlaca.
Peter’s Picks: The Isola Negroni; delicate porcini mushroom ravioli; divine sirloin of the third kind with rich polenta; fudgy tartuffo.
Peter’s Pans: Nope. Nothing. Really.

First published in part in Next magazine