Solid consistency proves a winning formula for warm bistro

I hadn’t been to Isa in far too long, but the comfortable bistro called my name recently. Looking to return for an update, we skipped past Bubba’s and Back Bay Grill, entering from the cold to be seated rather quickly. There was a small crowd, though we were there early. The bar had a bit of a bustle going on and we took a look at the drink list to see how we could take part.

The waitress informed us of the happy hour specials which were going on for another ten minutes. I don’t often choose wine, but the $5 Italian red – Sangiovese Blend, Scarpetta “Frico Rosso” – sounded promising. Mrs. Portlandeater went with the Rose, Gobelsberg “Cistercien” from Austria. Then we focused on the proper pairing.

My wine was light and fruity with a softness rarely found in a red wine – a really outstanding value at 5 bucks. I wasn’t sure that seafood was the perfect fit for it, but I figured the Seared White Fish (haddock) – cauliflower, NorthSpore mushrooms, sherry – looked tasty and with both an outstanding wine and fine dinner, it would surely work well enough. I also added a side of Brussels Sprouts and Squash – goat cheese, spicy pepitas, balsamic. She started with a Classic Caesar – spicy croutons, white anchovies (hold the anchovies) – and went for the Eggplant Lasagna – housemade pasta, ricotta, tarragon.

We nibbled on some housemade foccacia and oil and sipped wine until her Caesar came. It was just what you would expect, wonderfully fresh and potent with a fair portion of parmesan on top – nothing out of the ordinary but a fine showing. We sipped our wines while she ate the salad and then waited for our main courses as the restaurant started to pick up somewhat.

Our food took a bit longer than usual to come out, so I didn’t have to worry how the wine paired as all I had left was an empty glass. A nice, thick piece of haddock sat atop some flat cauliflower and mushrooms on my plate. The veggie side had colorful cubes of squash, the sprouts, and drops of cheese and pepitas throughout. Her lasagna was adorned a pile of ricotta on top.

With the first bite of haddock, I new I had made the right choice. The fish was perfectly cooked with a light brown layer on the outside and a flakey inside. The sherry sauce was light and smooth which was a stellar compliment to the haddock. The mushrooms also added plenty of flavor since they were thoroughly saturated with sauce. The cauliflower was almost a full side in itself, feeling a bit cauliflower steak, but not quite as substantial.

When I finally took a bite of the squash and sprouts, they won me over immediately. Sure, they were sweet and benefited from the balsamic reduction, but I’ve never had a dish that was so transformed by goat cheese. Not normally among my favorites, the cheese took the other ingredients and blended them well, creating somewhat of a sweet, creamy whip you might imagine as a light dessert. No, it wasn’t as sweet as dessert, but it brought about those feelings. And the nutty pepitas didn’t hurt.

As we finished our main courses, we considered one last chapter. Even though Tres Leches Cake – a favorite of my wife’s – was on the menu, we eventually decided to pass. Alas, we were too full to consume any more. Our total came to around $75 after tax and tip. We made our way out into the winter weather again, ready to move on with our night.

Isa has a number of qualities that make it special. They’re incredibly consistent with the food and drink, the menu has plenty on it for all tastes, and the warm, casual atmosphere is brilliantly comfortable. You can be sure when you go, you’ll find a good meal, but most of the time it will be much better than that, often even great. Head to Isa if you haven’t been and definitely consider making it one of your regular stops, because it’s really that good.

79 Portland St.

Stay hungry.

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