ISA: Freemans’ Cousin is Born in Brooklyn

A wise man said, “Don’t just talk about it. Do it.”

Saturday night I stumbled blindly into what I consider to be the Holy Grail of New York dining experiences.  With a tentative idea to meet friends for supper in Williamsburg but no real plan even at 6:37pm on a Saturday night, Claireban Coffey, the red haired Irish siren, came through.  The text read simply,

“Meeting at the new Freemans on Wyeth and South 2nd at 9 bells.”

ISA, which quietly and without fanfare or press had it’s soft opening last week, is not the new Freemans, though it does boast Freemans’ main man, Taavo Somer, at its helm. However, it is Ignacio Mattos, the chef from il Buco, who presides over the beautifully simple brick-backed open kitchen that guarantees ISA’s success. In the New York restaurant world, a space curated by Somer with food cooked by Mattos, is a one-two punch that will leave New Yorkers reeling (for more). Taavo, a trained architect who went on to start a line of inside out vintage t-shirts with snarky statements like “PILLOW TALK IS EXTRA” or “THERE’S A WATERBED IN MY VAN” written in rudimentary fuzzy iron-on lettering, is the founder of a restaurant/clothing empire with Freemans Sporting Club, which is at least partially responsible for making “hip” synonymous with bearded urban woodsman.

At ISA, Taavo has created a sparse yet warm series of dining rooms (the upstairs is not yet open), with high-beamed ceilings and tables of reclaimed wood. My boyfriend Sebastian aptly noted that the space evoked a geometrist’s house in New Mexico, with pentagon sided lamps and white triangular shapes in the concrete masking the ventilation above the kitchen. The number of blonde Paul McCobb chairs amassed is impressive, and there is nary a taxidermy head nor a knickknack in sight. The tiny wood burning stoves throughout the restaurant, with the entire southern wall piled neatly with chopped timber guarantee that the restaurant will be as cozy in winter as it was airy on a summer’s night. ISA is the Estonian word for father, an appropriate name for a collaboration between two men—Somer and Mattos—who became first time fathers within four hours of each other in the same ward at the same hospital several months ago. Clearly, these guys are in sync.

The menu (which is still limited and offers only two entrees at present), exemplifies Mattos’ sublime ability to combine locally farmed ingredients with deft simplicity. His concoctions are both straightforward and surprising. While we waited (and waited) for our table, we nibbled on filleted sardines served with their fried skeletons, celery and Catalan Alberquina olives. The fried sardine heads were certainly the best part, but how clever of Mattos to juxtapose the soft meaty flesh with the crispy head and bones, and the cleansing freshness of sliced celery. To be completely honest, waiting was hardly a hardship. ISA doesn’t have a liquor license yet, so we sipped our own rosé, which the pony-tailed barman kept cool for us and poured liberally. What could be better than gathering with friends in a perfectly lit room, chatting gaily, occasionally dipping outside to speak intimately and feel the breeze come up from the East River? We were, after all, a group of nine who sauntered up on a Saturday night without a reservation.

It was worth the wait. At 10:15 we arranged ourselves around the best table in the house. I sat on a long bench, with the open floor-to-ceiling door at my back making it feel like I was eating outside. I got to face the kitchen, where I could watch Mattos, a ruggedly handsome native of Uruguay, and his team carefully plate our dishes. We started with pickled Daikon radishes, perfect for awakening our taste buds, served with strings of purplish Kombu (a sea kelp used to make dashi). The whole squid roasted in the wood-burning oven plated beside a pool of their own rich ink, were slightly tough, but nonetheless flavorful, and tiny slivers of pickled onion helped to balance the dish (though the crisps of dark “toast” were not actually crisp, and hence seemed extraneous).

But the piéce de la resistance for the appetizers was the Travesio salad dressed in Cashew Nut Cream Cheese from Dr. Cow, a local Williamsburg company that creates extraordinary “living raw food.” The deliciousness factor of this “cheese” (which is not really a cheese, as it contains zero dairy, not to mention soy or preservatives, but is simply the result of carefully fermented organic nuts), tied my head into knots. We used our hands to devour every last “cream” laden bitter leaf in a matter of seconds, and this Travesio dish was so good that it almost makes me contemplate veganism. (Almost, but not quite because then I wouldn’t be able to eat what came next.)

The cod, which was poached to perfection, was served warm but not hot, and exquisitely paired with the freshest, most delicate raw and pickled cucumber and a rich garlicky aioli. I could write an ode to the cucumber, which was either from the garden upstairs or from an organic farmer with a golden green thumb. The plate also had a light dusting of Botarga, dried capers and lemon balm. One friend commented that the cod’s skin was a little bit slimy, but I thought that even un-seared it was incredibly fine and rich without being unctuous. The meat lovers at the table chose the steak entrée, which was tender but was dominated by the carrot with which it was served: roasted carrots, mint and a carrot jus, roasted onions and lardo. Even if it was good, it can’t have been better than my cod.

The desserts, of which there were two, were sensational. Pastry chef Amelia Telc concocted a peach and sugar plum sorbet, served with white peach that was sliced thin and was perhaps a day or two before its ripest: the sliced peach’s firm tartness balanced the sweetness of the sorbet, and its texture complimented that of the homemade toasted granola and oats that were also in the bowl.  Chocolate lovers fell for the pure chocolate cream served with currants, a buttermilk granita and lemon basil.

Taavo hit the ball out of the park with Freemans, pretty much singlehandedly kicking off the taxidermy trend in New York and making everyone wish they’d bought stock in Edison bulbs.  Bloggers have long been guessing about the imminent opening of “the new Freemans”, claiming that while Freemans had a “hipster theme” (whatever that means!) and The Rusty Knot (Taavo’s slapdash bar on the West Side Highway) had a “nautical them,” that the Williamsburg project was rumored to be “hippie themed.” In my opinion, it is not (though ISA’s card does look a little like it was designed by Timothy Leary). ISA is a textured restaurant of wood and brick accented by the stainless steel smoothness of the open kitchen. It is true that there is a rooftop garden over one part of the building, where ISA grows herbs, tomatoes, and other vegetables to use in the cuisine, but in an age when rooftop gardens are often designed by prescient architecture firms, and there is enough scientific evidence to show that eating locally and seasonally should be a universal practice, I don’t see how a rooftop garden validates the notion that ISA is a “hippy-themed” restaurant.

Or maybe I’m just a hippy, because I loved ISA.

348 Wyeth Ave. (at South 2nd Street)
Brooklyn, NY 11211


For more images of ISA’s interior, go to the Edible Selby here.

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5 Responses to “ISA: Freemans’ Cousin is Born in Brooklyn”

  1. Kate says:

    Lovely review… wish i had ruby slippers and could teleport myself there.

    Wondering if they’ll give you the recipe for the Travesio salad dressed in Cashew Nut Cream Cheese. Sounds delicious and would be amazing for those of us farther than a cab ride away!

  2. serena merriman says:

    this is a fabulous review, cheapeau!

  3. Wrecka G says:

    can we go when i’m over?

  4. Silver Cat says:

    WOW! ISA sounds great. I’ve got my bottle of rose and am on my way.
    Thanks for the tip.

  5. Silver Cat says:

    Thank you, the lovage! I’m hailing a taxi right now and heading to ISA, hopefully before the stampede triggered by your mouthwatering review.

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