Islero, the New Tapas Spot in Turtle Bay, Needs To Find its Footing

Despite its earnestness (and talented chef)

There are pleasures to be found at Islero, the new tapas spot in Turtle Bay, but sitting at the testosterone-drenched bar at happy hour isn't one of them. (Unless you're there to pick up an i-banker, in which case the outlook is promising.) I sat there one evening, drinking a passable sangria and listening to a charming guy next to me rail drunkenly about his ex-wife's insistence that he pay his kids' college tuition.

The restaurant's mannish vibe starts with its name. Islero was the bull that gored and killed the famed Spanish bullfighter Manolete in 1947. The food isn't as hot-tempered as all that, running more toward the dainty than the bloody—sometimes to good effect. But Islero is a restaurant adrift, and it will need to find its footing quickly to avoid being gored itself.

The pleasures at Islero come in dishes like the creamed spinach, sparked with allspice and shallots; it left a pool of spiced cream behind in its serving dish. The "huevo" dish is a soft-cooked egg that arrives with a crunchy strip of bacon sticking up out of the liquid yolk. After you eat the bacon, cut into the egg and the rest of the yolk flows out to enrich the wild mushrooms below. The sweet-and-salty plantains are sticky with a fantastic salty caramel, and the camarones (shrimp) are gorgeously fat specimens, skewered with charred chorizo.

Arroz cremoso is the most memorable of all. Inky forbidden black rice—a variety from China with a deep, nutty flavor—is given further depth and mushroomy funk by the addition of truffles and little nuggets of goat cheese. This dish looks exactly like squid-ink risotto, a more classic tapas dish—a clever nudge to tradition.

The mac 'n' cheese with black-hog ham is pretty great, but it should be, given that it's macaroni and cheese with ham. Likewise, the churros are nicely fried, if not revelatory, with a nicely bittersweet, cinnamon hot-chocolate dipping sauce.

But there's an earnestness about the cooking that comes off as dated or nervous. Someone's got a heavy hand with the squeeze bottle. The plums and figs, a mix of port-soaked plums and figs with Serrano ham and Garoxta cheese, gets a manic zig-zag of balsamic reduction all over it. The papas bravas—otherwise known as fried potatoes with spicy aoli—have no right to be anything other than great, but they are drowned in squiggles of sauce, which robs them of any crunch.

The croquettes are served on a fussy, geometric white plate with a section for each small fried ball. The flan came topped with a crazy tangle of spun sugar that reminded me of hair, and reminded my friend of glass—not items you really want to associate with dessert. The custard itself was dense and luscious with caramel. But fancy garnishes come off as silly when they're trotted out just for the sake of it—especially at a place with a TV at the bar playing ESPN. If Islero wants to be a casual neighborhood tapas spot, then it should be a casual neighborhood tapas spot. Certainly, the prices are fair enough (averaging $8 for the small plates).

The cocktails, however, are outrageously overpriced. I'll pay $14 for a really, really good (and strong) cocktail at a few places in town. But I refuse to pay $14 for a guy behind the bar to pour a little bit of bourbon into a glass, top it off with "chai-infused" sweet vermouth, and stick in a tiny piece of rock candy as the final flourish. Just because some places are asking for your firstborn in exchange for a perfectly ordinary drink doesn't mean everyone should do it.

Still, it's obvious that Chef Gonzale—who was the chef de cuisine at Mercer Kitchen—is talented and cooks thoughtfully. He sends out an amuse-bouche to everyone, which is a nice gesture since the place is not so high-end that you'd expect it. One night it was a bit of ceviche with jalapeño and mango, and another night a crostini with crèma, raspberries, and balsamic reduction.

The chef has certainly found himself in a less-than-ideal situation. Not long after opening, owner Chris Bianchi fired the original executive chef, Jessica Floyd, because, he says, she didn't understand the economics of running a kitchen, and her food was uneven. ("I ate there every night," he says, "and I knew if I was getting food that was too salty or cold, other people were too.") So he sacked her, along with most of the kitchen staff, and started over with Gonzale. A few weeks after that, the crane collapsed just a block away. Fortune hasn't exactly been smiling on Islero.

When I went on a Monday night, the outlook seemed grim. There were only a handful of occupied tables, and Bianchi was outside handing out promotional postcards. But at dinner on a Thursday night, it was raucous—the bar completely full, and the dining room nearly so.

The narrow space hosts a nice mix of twentysomethings on dates and groups of older women gossiping about their kids. The room is snug, but the tables are at a comfortable distance from each other. The chairs, though, are weirdly tall. Bianchi says that they are higher than usual to create a more lively and engaging atmosphere. I don't follow that logic, but I can say that my back wasn't feeling very lively after hunching down to reach my plate all night from a towering perch.

Turtle Bay needs more interesting places to eat, and there's promise in Gonzale's cooking. For all its silly mistakes, Islero could be a good neighborhood spot, if only it could relax and stop trying so hard.

 
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