I’m never shy of admitting that for me, dining out is as much about the ambience and overall experience as it is about the food. That’s not to say that I’d ever willingly compromise on the latter… and therein lies the problem. More often than not, restaurants tend to nail one or the other aspect, rarely both.
Isabel, the new Mayfair-based offshoot of Notting Hill’s Casa Cruz sadly makes no exception to this all-familiar trade-off. Taking over the site formerly occupied by Sumosan, the chi chi venue lays on all the glamour in sumptuous surrounds; but ultimately delivered us a dinner devoid of any style or substance…
The evening started off promisingly enough, sipping an exemplary French 75 at the central ebony bar and basking somewhat in the glow of the 300 polished brass lamps embedded in the ceiling above (purposefully positioned to enhance your skin tone).
Conceived of and designed by ex-financier turned restaurateur from Buenos Aires, Juan Santa Cruz, there’s no denying the alluring appeal to this debonair lair, fashioned as it is with Oriental, Art Deco and subtle industrial elements.
It’s just as sceney as Casa Cruz too, with staff wearing ruffled jumpsuits by Colombian designer Johanna Ortiz, and a well-coiffed clientele who look as though they could have just stepped out from a cover of Vogue. As we soon came to realise, the flip-side of this observation of course being that the menu (which professes to marry mediterranean dishes with Argentinian influences, or vice versa) is designed for those who nibble rather than feast…
Having been lengthily talked through the sharing concept of small plates (cue rolling of eyes and stifling of yawns), my three hungry girlfriends and I decided to order almost all the vegetarian options – from the salads and sides, to the pizzettes and pastas.
What was omitted from the over-enthusiastic preamble, was that the dishes might be best suited for children (or you know, babies) to share. They say that a picture is sometimes worth a thousand words, so perhaps I’ll save myself the bother of pointing out the amateurish-execution of the dishes and let this speak for itself?
From the watered-down tomato gnocchi, pallid bites of pizzas and al dente – almost offensive – take on a cacio e pepe, to the overly-sweet “spicy” corn and flavourless “smoked” aubergine (presented like an Indian-style baingan bharta or mash), almost all our dishes were lacking any discernibly-moreish factor or depth of textures.
We ended up washing it all down with three bottles of mineral water. Having ordered just the one single bottle at the start, our glasses appeared to be magically refilled over and over again throughout the course of our meal, new bottles materialising out of thin air without us having requested for them. I’m not sure about you, but frankly I always find this annoyingly-obtrusive (not to mention cheeky) service trait to be incredibly off-putting in a restaurant.
Short of heading down the street for a second dinner at Gymkhana, we decided to try and appease our still-rumbling tummies with a trio of desserts instead, opting for a chocolate and hazelnut cake, raspberry millefeuille and apple tart, throwing in a selection of petit fours for good measure.
To be fair (albeit relatively speaking), we fared much better with these…
… However, they proved to be rather unmemorable the next day, and rather unlike the chocolate fondant at Isabel’s oft-lamented predecessor, there was certainly not a single one to return back for.
The existence of an “after-hours” dancing den downstairs for some late-night carousing on the other hand, could hold some draw for a revisit. But then again with so many attractive alternatives in the area (including the likes of Club Chinois and the Arts Club), I’m not sure I’d take the risk.
Isabel Mayfair, 26 Albermarle Street London W1S 4HY
For noteworthy new restaurants, here’s my running round-up of worthwhile openings in 2017.