Restaurant Review: Isla
Tropical bar is more than just cocktails
Reviewed by Brandon Watson, Fri., June 19, 2015
Mon.-Fri., 4pm-2am; Sat.-Sun., 5pm-2am
It takes a certain amount of daring to open a restaurant in a space that has seen a succession of failed concepts. It takes even more chutzpah to open with the same concept as the previous tenant, keeping the bar and some murals, but doing away with some of the hard-surfaced masculism and unpleasantness. We somehow doubt owner Rob Pate is familiar with the nuances of shade, but, with Isla, he's surprisingly adept at throwing it.
Pate's own island in the stream of Fourth Street nightlife makes some major improvements to the cavernous space. Paying heed to the art of lingering, the owners upholstered almost all of the seating – clubby citron chairs, turquoise velvet banquettes, and coral-topped Thonet chairs. Dropped pendant lighting gives the warehouse space more intimacy, and an overblown palm-print toile gives a focal point. This Isla has no specific location, taking a long cruise from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It's more an idea of what midcentury suburbanites thought about island life.
Pastiche can be charming, and Isla has no intention of being a set-piece – even in its cuisine. And before exploring the menu, one should ignore the wagging finger of authenticity. I'll reiterate here my most frequent food rant: Authenticity has zero utility in determining whether a restaurant is good. There are surely only a few remote spots on the globe where the cuisine has avoided the influence of the outside world. And even those meals have evolved by accident and discovery. Eating out is not archeology. The folks who make sport out of, say, pointing out the specific produce used in the Caribbean are, frankly, insufferable.
It's true that Isla's roti isn't the rolled version typically served in the many shops dotting the West Indies. Isla serves theirs flat, piled with meat or vegetables. But they could have called it injera or fatir or torta for all we cared; the curried lamb ($15) and chicken ($13) were both lavished with the kind of spice that clings to the cheeks. And yes, the traditional method of ceviche-making is just a starting point. Cucumber added a nice crunch to the mildly astringent shrimp and scallop version ($18), while coriander oil gives a subtle floral note to the marlin ($19). There's a market special daily – on our last visit, a grouper ($18) speckled with firm mango, pickled jalapeño, and Fresno chiles – that the kitchen uses to highlight flavors instead of just a different fish. Served with warmed chips mid-meal, it was a refreshing palate cleanser.
The strong flavors are necessary because the drinks pack such a wallop. Like neighboring Péché, Isla obsesses over its cocktail program (there's only a scant selection of beer and wine). The volcano drinks are surely the most Instagrammed. Isla calls the bowls "family drinks," which any number of Lohans might find affirming. We tried the flaming Luau Scorpion Bowl ($26); served by three (enabling) seahorses, it combines gold rum, cognac, gin, and possibly the potion from Death Becomes Her. It's not the sort of drink one sips in a maple-paneled library, but the kitschiness does not overrule some small sophistication. The rest of the cocktail program has plenty of room for seriousness too. The Isla Cobbler ($12) uses passion fruit syrup and a piquant dash of nutmeg. The draft Mai Tai ($11) combines rhum agricole with aged Jamaican rum, and the heady draft Zombie ($15) takes a cue from its sister bar, adding a dose of absinthe to all that rum.
With so much booze, much of the menu is somewhat driven by the need to be absorbent. On the apps section of the menu, that means plenty of things are fried. The crab and corn cakes ($16) had successful components. The cakes themselves appeared to be dense clods on the plate, but were greaseless and surprisingly light on the tongue. The citrus tartar sauce focused heavily on that first word. It would dazzle on the more neutral base of fish and chips, but masked the delicate sweetness of corn and crab. The grilled octopus ($20) found a much better match with its accompanying Kalamata olive sauce. The prickle of salt animates the charred skewers, seasoned lightly enough not to compete.
Hearty fare dominates the big plates too. Medium-rare flank steak ($24) is served with a stripe of green onion-heavy chimichurri and slices of avocado, the bed of black beans keeping everything grounded. Melting ropa vieja was served with a coconut-scented rice. Of course that side is nowhere near doctrinaire, but the slight dryness of the rice – perfect for soaking up the tomato-based sauce – made it feel more considered than accidental. The Caribbean Seafood Pepper Pot ($28) wasn't close to the letter on the pepper, but was swimming in scallops, mussels, and shrimp.
Make no mistake, Isla is not one of those culinary temples where you will find an intellectual dessert – although the delicious simplicity of the two we tried, a candied lime peel-topped key lime pie and a caramel-enriched tres leches cake ($7.50 for either), made us think about how much gimmickry can mar meals. The main focus of Isla is conviviality and warmth; it really doesn't have to razzle-dazzle with anything else. Where certain outposts get by solely on the strength of brightly colored drinks, Isla adds quality to all that octane. You might want to Uber after one of their bowls, but you'll still be licking your chops on the ride home.
Isla208 W. Fourth, 512/322-9921
Mon.-Fri., 4pm-2am; Sat.-Sun., 5pm-2am
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