Restaurateur Taavo Somer’s latest eatery, Isa (348 Wythe Avenue, 347-689-3594), opened recently in Williamsburg, boasting what he called a “primitive modern” aesthetic. Wanting to understand how this stripped-down look played into the food, we called up chef Ignacio Mattos to learn more about his culinary outlook for the spot and to better understand the interplay between décor and food.
Tell me about your vision for the menu at Isa.
The menu is pretty personal. We had a hard time trying to classify it. We like calling it “modern primitive.” It’s simple but works together. I try to use very basic elements, like lots of raw ingredients and also we have a wood-fired oven. We do dishes with a smoke element or char element. It’s very basic and traditional and uses all techniques of cooking — but in a different way.
What’s your signature dish at the restaurant?
Maybe the sardines. They are salt-cured, and after that we fillet the fish and take out the bones, and the bones get deep-fried. We serve them together with olives and celery and oranges and orange oil. Visually, it’s very fun, and the sardine remains intact. The skin is beautiful, and the bone provides you the crunchiness and deeper flavor. It’s very raw in terms of its look, since it’s a skeleton on the plate. We’re integrating every element or piece in a very interesting way, but also using a traditional, old-school technique of salt-curing.
How is the food at Isa compared to what you were doing at Il Buco, where you previously worked?
It’s a whole new mind-set. It’s hard to say. We’re trying to go in a completely different direction in terms of aesthetic and flavors. There’s a lot more freedom. [At Il Buco] I had to respect the Italian tradition. [At Isa] there’s no limit. It’s just your own mind. We’re just trying to play and have a joyful and fun approach.
How does the restaurant’s design influence the food you put out?
I think it’s very important that they both complement each other. When Taavo Somer and I started talking, we had different ideas about what the food would be. I put my own vision into what I thought would fit into his. We were talking the same things, but we had different ideas of what it would be. It’s been very experimental working together. He’s doing the same thing [with the décor] that we’re doing with the food. There’s a relationship between the two. If you look at the space, there’s a lot of contrast in terms of design. The stools, the tables — a kind of rougher feeling. Contrast has been a big inspiration for me, and for Taavo as well. What’s the hardest thing about opening a restaurant?
Not having a liquor license. And then trying to create a language and vocabulary that works for everyone the same way. Yeah, it’s difficult, and people’s expectations are high. People say, “I love it,” or, “I hate it.” And it’s hard to get things up to speed when your budget isn’t huge.
How do you go about hiring cooks to work under you?
What I look for is passion. It’s very difficult to find people who are committed and passionate and will do whatever it takes and get it right. It’s important. I do what I love, and it’s one of the few things I can do right. We should be doing what we love and having fun. But it’s not as important to have someone who has a lot of experience.
Do you try to change the menu regularly?
The menu changes every day. I try to keep a certain consistency so people know what they’re getting. It’s very important that we have dishes in a certain way. We might be adding and taking off things, but now the most important thing is to try and create the language through those flavors. It’s very important that those dishes express what we’re both trying to achieve in terms of vision.
What are some things you’d never put on a menu?
I’m just trying to cook stuff I love eating. Maybe I’m getting old, but I won’t put on the menu stuff that isn’t exciting to me. I want to find what is new to me. I’m not saying that we’re doing raw food or going to extremes, but it’s very important that there’s tradition and keeping it fun and interesting at the same time. I didn’t want to do burgers and pizza. I love them, but they are kind of overrated. Why does every place have to do a burger and fried chicken? Food has an important cultural impact. It’s important that we evolve it and move it along. I mean, how many burgers can you eat in a week?
Check back in tomorrow, when Ignacio reveals his thoughts about the world’s most important food cities.