Related Articles: Restaurants, All

Neat, Sweet, Petite

Isa brightens the Marina dining scene

Sample San Francisco's newest eateries and you can't help but feel like Gulliver in Lilliput. Little plates, little portions everywhere you look. Suddenly, it's a tapas world out there, and I'm not talking only manchego cheese and gambas al ajillo. Tapas is a Spanish tradition, sure, but here in San Francisco, we're not always traditional. Head to Isa in the Marina District and watch France get shrunk down to size.

The first challenge is finding the place. Scan your eyes the length of Isa's block of Steiner, and you could easily miss the narrow entranceway and colorful, though tiny, sign. Past a purple velvet curtain, diners are elbow to elbow in the white glow of suspended halogens. The claustrophobic among us can thread their way through the front room, past the open kitchen where chef Luke Sung is busy on the burners, and head for the less romantic, though comparably airy backyard patio. In either space, Isa exudes that brand of cool particular to the Marina: affluent, spare, elegant, a boutique bistro full of beautiful people who look fresh from the gym, in-love, ready to make babies. It's a yuppie vibe, of course, but don't get snobby. Yuppies know how to eat.

Yuppies, presumably, also know how to share, because that's the deal at Isa. There are no courses on the menu, just a list of small to medium-sized plates where everyone gets a bite. It's unconventional, and it works. Isa has a lot of flavors to offer, from the voluptuous foie gras, seared with rhubarb and strawberries ($14) to the savory ragout of veal sweetbreads and mushrooms, potatoes galette ($12). Sharing allows you to cover your bets, running from the bracing bistro salad with poached egg ($6) to the simple and elegantly flavored roasted P.E.I mussels with shallots and white wine (seasonal). Isa doesn't offer complicated flavors-the potato-wrapped Alaskan halibut 'paupiette' with capers, tomato, lemon and brown butter ($13) could be categorized as comfort food-still, there's a brand of sophisticated restraint at work here.

The dishes run from $6 to $17, and they're deceptively filling. Two of us filled up on four. True to its size, Isa is not a bank-breaker. The wine list is a one-pager, with particularly appealing whites. Check out the Manciat-Poncet Macon for refined take on Chardonnay, and the Alban Vineyards Central Coast Viognier is the best in the state.

Isa extends the tapas trend to France and beyond (you can even have manchego cheese for dessert). It's dilettante dining for the indecisive set, for those who like to taste rather than gorge. If you can find the place, and squeeze your way in, you'll enjoy the varied, though miniature terrain.

Accepted Payment
Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diners Card