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French Fly 


Wednesday, Dec 27 2000
A few months back, while perusing Jeffrey Steingarten's incomparable The Man Who Ate Everything, I had a personal revelation as I read an essay that mentioned the difference between hunger and appetite. Though the dichotomy is nothing new --according to the Oxford Companion to Food, "hunger" is the physical sensation of wanting to eat, while "appetite" is the mental one, and the distinction between the two is "not useful" -- it was new to me. What's more, I like the distinction, since it helps explain why, though I'm not always hungry, I haven't experienced a lack of appetite since September 1999, about the time I began writing these reviews.

Have I changed? Perhaps I have. For example, a few years ago, I used to dream of skiing down mountains infinitely laden with snow until I came to a cabin where the kindest, most supernaturally beautiful woman would take me in and love me forever. Now I dream the same dream, but it includes braised lamb shanks, creamy polenta, steamed flounder, mustard greens, cognac, bourbon, and Peruvian alfajores. In college, I tried very hard to believe that desire is a hindrance to perfect enlightenment, as the Buddhists teach. Now I find myself riding the beast of want like a sled to ... who knows where? A good place, I hope, but we'll see.

Whatever happens, I'll surely be content if that place has restaurants as excellent as the Marina District's Isa. It's a tony little bistro owned by a chef named Luke Sung, a family man who first drew breath 27 years ago and may well have been honing his craft ever since. After growing up in Taiwan and Vancouver, then partially completing the culinary program at City College of San Francisco, Sung opted for a more hands-on education, logging stints in three of the city's top French kitchens: He was the garde-manger (aka pantry) guy at La Folie, the vegetable guy at Masa's, then the saucier at the Ritz-Carlton Dining Room. Apparently he kept his eyes open the entire time, because at Isa (which opened in August) he's put together a brilliantly crafted, tapas-style menu that provides a banquet's worth of tastes, textures, and California-esque riffs on nouvelle cuisine, without the unnecessary bulk.

Beyond the chef's age, one of the most remarkable things (OK, the second most remarkable thing) about Isa is how tiny it is. The whole place is a narrow little shoebox, not much bigger than a cassoulet, marked by snaky track lighting, a hostess stand run through with swirls of green and blue, and a display table in the front window at which a bright beam of light falls like a ray from heaven onto whatever dish the display diners happen to be eating. Sung's wife, Kitty, runs the front of the house, ushering customers either to a handful of indoor tables; to a quiet, covered outdoor patio; or, since Isa has become quite popular, to the waiting list, which stood at a relatively undaunting half-dozen names at 7 p.m. on a Friday night.

That's the second most remarkable thing about Isa. The first, at least when my friend Alexandra and I visited, was the abundance of children. We saw babies in strollers, toddlers on tiptoe, and Christopher, the Sungs' 2-year-old son, rapping on the window of his family's upstairs apartment, presumably as his 6-month-old sister, Isabel (the restaurant's namesake), slept. Fortunately, these future gourmets were a quiet bunch; perhaps they realized their parents were immersed in a ritual that should never, under any circumstances, be disturbed.

The best way to sum up our experience at Isa is as follows: By the time dinner was over, we realized that French food might still, and always, be the best in the world. Not everything was perfect: The dinner menu wished us "Bon Appetite," and the small, affordable wine list promised that our L'Hortus Classique '98 would be "awesome," when it was actually a dry, simple splash of grape. But then we tried the potato-leek soup, a subtle, creamy ambrosia whose depths revealed tender scallops glazed with little more than an insinuation of roasted crispness. Truffle oil danced across the soup's surface, like golden beads of mercury, providing a gentle shimmer of earthiness when consumed with a spoonful of soup, or, when spooned alone, an invigorating, super-pungent blast that left no doubt as to why pigs and dogs roam the forests of Europe.

Baked goat cheese seems to pop up everywhere these days (crusted with pistachios, in Colombian arepas, in fondue, flan, salads, you name it), but Isa's relatively simple version -- discs of tangy chevre nudged perhaps a quarter of the way to moltenness, served with tomatoes, pine nuts, and cool, fresh, peppery basil -- stands heads and shoulders above most. In fact, the only dish we didn't like was another high-end standard, seared foie gras, served in this case with rhubarb marmalade and fresh strawberries. Perhaps I simply prefer my foie en terrine, in small dabs, with toasted bread to balance its immense, resonant richness. Or maybe I just don't know how to appreciate what felt like a mouthful of grease. Regardless, this one plain fell flat.

But then, why mess with fatty liver when, like chef Sung, you can whip out impeccable tournedos of salmon? We got a gorgeously shaped medallion, grilled with a strip of bacon that was removed prior to service, leaving a delicate, salty undertone to play off the smoky, crackling, velvety fish and the tender sherry lentils. Potato-wrapped sea bass with capers, tomato, and lemon hit like a revelation, then kept on giving -- at first bite, it tasted like the most incredible, piquant french fry in the universe, then it morphed into firm, luscious, juicy flesh elevated by the very same seasonings.

Then, right about the time we were starting to feel it, a tall, dark man named Vincenzo strolled in and caught me eating dinner with his wife. As he stared me down, I realized I faced two choices: brave his wrath for starting dinner without him, or instruct our waitress to bring him a chair, a basket of bread, a glass of rich, spicy Chateau Sainte-Marie Bordeaux, and, for the hell of it, a steak.

Quite wisely, I opted for the latter. This choice allowed all of us to relish tender strips of thin-sliced, grilled hanger steak with potatoes pont neuf (a sort of thick frite) and a stunningly complex tarragon-mustard sauce that drew comparisons to the miracles Antoine Alliaume works when manning the kitchen at Lombard Street's Curbside Too. Herb-crusted, sautéed chicken with parsley potatoes seemed a tad lifeless until we realized that (foolish us) we forgot to swab the chicken with the accompanying pan jus, which took us to a far better place. Our two final savory dishes -- tender rack of lamb with a garden fresh ratatouille of eggplant, zucchini, and tomato, followed by a soupy wild mushroom risotto -- drew mixed reviews. I prefer my lamb a bit gamier, my risotto creamier, and so thought they were merely very good; Vincenzo thought they were great, while Alexandra thought they fell somewhere between the two.

To ease the transition to dessert (because such things should never be rushed), we ordered a cheese plate: rich, smooth manchego and creamy, pungent, utterly rotten (a good thing) Roquefort served with candied walnuts, fresh grapes, and a fan-sliced apple. No disagreements arose (three thumbs up), nor did any when an older fellow at the next table suggested we try the Chateau Suduiraut sauternes. OK, maybe I did have to wrestle the delicate cordial of sweet white wine from Vincenzo's massive paw as he stared off into space, marveling at the sauternes' delicious, lingering hints of peach and apple. Beyond that, the wine stunned all three of us into a state of happy submission.

Thus prepped, we tackled our actual desserts -- a light, moderately seductive flourless chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream, and passion fruit soup laced with mango, cantaloupe, pineapple, mint, and a skin of frozenness, if you can imagine it, like eating a bright, piquant, liquid sorbet. These are the things Vincenzo, Alexandra, and I -- and, if I might hazard a guess, the fellow at the next table -- look for when fine dining: food that's clever, balanced, and above all flawlessly executed.

Without a doubt, Isa can deliver.

About The Author

Greg Hugunin

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