KQED Food Blog: Bay Area Bites: Leaning Tower of Isa
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Thursday, December 01, 2005
Leaning Tower of Isa

I am highly suggestible.

How so? Well, after my third viewing of the third episode of Check, Please Bay Area (Okay, before you judge me as being an obsessive TV-watcher, the first viewing was just me, the second was me and my husband, and the third was me, my husband, and my mother-in-law, who proclaimed the show to be intensely interesting and a great idea, so D.C.-area PBS, are you listening?), I got the worst craving for Isa.

My mother-in-law was in town for the holidays and we had already arranged for her to stay in the Marina at the Hotel del Sol. Let me tell you, if I wasn't already convinced when our Boston friends stayed there two years ago, I'm certainly convinced now: Hotel del Sol has to be the best Bay Area hotel/motel ever. It's a remodeled motorlodge from the fifties and it's just, well...incredibly cheerful! The hotel energetically painted in sunny, primary colors, it has giant palm trees and hammocks in the nicely-paved parking lot-cum-courtyard, the rooms are color coordinated with the exterior and probably decorated with IKEA stuff, AND they have a pillow library. A PILLOW LIBRARY!

Basically, if you don't like your pillow, you pull out the handy-dandy hotel information binder and decide, "Hm, the 'Sacked Out' stuffed with goose down? Or the 'Dreamweaver' with buckwheat?" and then you order whichever of the ten or so pillows strikes your sandman fancy. There is also a video library (they have VCRS in the rooms) which includes a ton of movies that were shot in San Francisco. You've got your Mrs. Doubtfire, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Vertigo, Nine Months and a bunch of others. Give them time, and I'm sure they'll stock up on the complete seasons of Full House. See the Olsen Twins before Ashley ate Mary Kate! Or maybe it was the other way around.

My mother-in-law was happy to report that the morning coffee at Hotel del Sol was exceptionally good -- Blue Bottle, maybe? -- and that she loved how bright and attractive everything was. She was particularly impressed by how one of the walls in her room was painted spring green, the other three were a warm goldenrod, and the bathroom was a dull red. I'm telling you, the people at Hotel del Sol definitely have it going on with the details, right down to the glazed, mosaic room number plaques on the doors and the fairy lights twining up the gently bending palm trees. I know this column is supposed to be about food, but I couldn't live with myself if I didn't give Hotel del Sol some major props. It's such a happy place. Plus, it sort of has something to do with food if you consider that we found Isa to be such a good idea because it was within easy walking distance of the hotel.

With the exception of the lamb chops and a salad, we had a major seafood fest at Isa.We started with the arugula and fennel salad. It came with meaty cubes of persimmon (something I'd been dying to try since Shuna's post. See? Suggestible.), pomegranate seeds, and thin shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano. It was so delicious that I had to recreate it in my own kitchen tonight. The only difference was I was fresh out of Parmigiano-Reggiano, so I subbed in some Manchego d'Oro.

Our next two courses were the grilled honey-spiced calamari with flageolet beans, arugula, and lemon zest, and the roasted tiger prawns with lemon, braised, fennel, olives, and tomato. My god. The calamari? Best I've ever had. As much as I love to sample the deep-fried variety wherever I go, I would be happy to eat this sweetened grilled version for the rest of my natural born life. The squid was tender and smokey without being the least bit tough or mushy. I'm going back for a double order of that. By comparison, the roasted prawns were not as interesting. They were cooked nicely, but the rest of the stuff that came with them didn't have a whole lot of flavor.

Next out was the Halibut à la Plancha with segments of orange, tiny cubings of crunchy radish, and blushing Chioggia beets. Everything had the lightest coat of champagne vinegar. I love halibut any day of the week but this particular treatment was so light and refreshing that you could taste every pure flavor shining through.

Of course we had to order the signature potato-wrapped sea bass with brown butter, capers, lemon, and parsley, and OF COURSE it was amazing. The potato casing was so thin you could see right through the slices. I know this for a fact because I tried it. Did I mention we also had a nice bottle of wine? The sea bass meat was dense, succulent, and, I swear, you could have told me it was lobster tail and I would have believed you.

Since lamb is my absolute favorite of all the bloody meats, we also ordered the roasted rack with zucchini and red pepper. They didn't even ask us how we wanted it done. Why? Because they knew exactly how it needed to be done. It was a perfect medium-rare.

On the side of all this protein, we ordered a dish of sautéed pea shoots with garlic, and I'm getting kind of exhausted by my raptures here, but it can't be helped -- it was another superb dish. One of the reviewers at Check, Please! Bay Area said that Isa had "explosive flavors" and he was right. Put me down as a devoted fan.

I'm going back for that Dungeness crab salad just as soon as I can be totally certain I'm eating local crabs.


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