Saturday, 23 January 2016

ISONO Eatery and Bar - the more casual Spanish spot

One of my top rated restaurants from 2015 was Vasco, Spanish fine dining.  You can read all about it here in my Top 10 of 2015. While Vasco is the ultimate in fine dining, there is a much more relaxed and casual feel about ISONO, the Spanish style tapas restaurant run by Drawing Room Concepts, the team behind Vasco and numerous other restaurants around Hong Kong.

Located on the sixth floor of Soho's very own arts precent, PMQ, ISONO eatery and bar shares many of the same traits as its more distinguished older brother.  The menu was created by Executive Chef Paolo Casagrande, drawn from his memories and experiences as a child in the Mediterranean.  If you're not familiar with Paolo Casagrande, his main game is at the Two Michelin starred Lasarte in Barcelona, but he lends his expertise and name to both Vasco and ISONO.

We'd been eyeing off checking out ISONO for a while, but it took one of those serendipitous moments to eventually get us in for dinner.  We were at a genuine loss one night walking home from work....  We simply had no idea about what we felt like for dinner and were getting a little frustrated trying to pin down one restaurant to visit.  It just so happened that we were walking along Hollywood Road and only a few steps away from the PMQ.  With no reservation, we hedged our bets that we'd be able to score a table as a walk in.

Our gamble paid off!

After we were shown to our table and given our menus to look over, I was taken by the cool and funky interior of ISONO.  With a semi industrial feel to the space, which was centred around an open bar, the dining room felt like a spot that you'd be happy hanging out at for drinks after work or a quick bite to eat from the tapas menu.  I guess it was perfect for our needs.  I also loved the open space that had a clear ceiling that showed off some of the skyscrapers around Hong Kong and leant a very cosmopolitan feel to the space.

We selected half a dozen items off the menu that provided a good cross selection of your typical Mediterranean cuisine.  The interesting thing about the menu was the ability to order a regular size, which was suitable for two people, or the large size targeted at larger groups.  While we waited for our meal to commence, a loaf of warm and very crusty bread was delivered with a deep bowl of Spanish olive oil for dipping.  It took all of my willpower not to completely fill up on the oh-so-comforting warm bread.

As is the case with tapas, our food came out in quick succession, starting with the beef tartare with organic egg and truffle mayonnaise.  I quite liked the presentation, which saw the neatly piled ground beef surrounded by toasted bread that seemed to stand guarding the lightly salted egg yolk that sat on the beef.  There were chopped condiments like gherkin and onions already mixed within the beef, so all we had to do was mix in the creamy yolk and we were good to go.  The beef was clearly high grade with a slightly sweet flavour and it was very enjoyable.  We did have a little bit of a problem though, there were only five sliced of the crusty toast to share, so a sixth piece might have worked better with just the two of us.

A thinly sliced sheet of Iberico chorizo was delivered at the same time as the tartare, presented on a bread board that had the distinctive ISONO branding stamped at one end.  I'm a big fan of Chorizo, but I normally prefer thick chunks of the sweet sausage grilled and hot.  It's something I'd have to reconsider after sampling this amazing chorizo, which as soft on the palate and super sweet with a hint of heat.  It was so thin, that instead of using a fork to eat, I just slid my knife under each round and jammed them into my mouth with increasing frequency and urgency. Yeah, that chorizo was superb.

We'd been going for all the classics and up next was the chargrilled octopus with chunky mashed potatoes, tomato, dates and piquillo pepper sauce.  Like chorizo, I have a particular love of octopus, especially when prepared with potato.  I think I'd been too distracted with the chorizo, as by the time I started munching on the octopus, the potato foam had cooled a little and was a bit gluggy.  The tentacles of the octopus had been sliced to the right thickness and were extremely well cooked, and very tasty.  There was a decent hit of heat from the bright red piquillo pepper sauce and a little acidity from the slices of cherry tomato.  We had a deal, the girl ate the potato and spicy sauce and I munched on the delicious octopus pieces.

The dish was also served with a side of Spanish style toast with tomato, always a treat.

Main was the Australian Wagyu ribeye, which was served with a triple cooked chips and chargrilled baby corn as sides.  The steak was served in an unusual way, it was super thin, like it had been rolled flat, then sliced into thin ready-to-eat strips.  The beef itself was quite nice, but it was a little under seasoned and a little on the cool side, as if it had rested for a little too long.  The chips looked quite nice, with a lovely golden colour, but when we started munching, they were actually soft and didn't have that crispness that signifies great chips.  What was amazing though was the chargrilled baby corn, which were bathed in butter and tasted superb, especially the overly charred bits.

We were in a bit of a rush to get home, and there was nothing on the dessert menu that jumped up and said 'eat me - eat-me-now', so we decided to skip something sweet to end the meal.

I'm finding that there is a big divide in restaurants in Hong Kong, there are those that are just super hard to get into and busy all the time, and those that have the feeling that they could be super popular, but just don't have the same pulling power.  ISONO felt like it fit into that second category, the food was pretty good, but the dining room just didn't get that busy.  Now, that may be an issue of timing, we do tend to eat a little earlier than the typical Hong Konger, but we are seeing quite a few dining spots where there are plenty of tables available.

I think that ISONO would be a great spot if you wanted to have a few drinks and some tapas to accompany, but I wasn't completely sold on the main course or the chips.  Unlike our experience at Vasco, which was faultless, there were just a few elements that didn't quite work.  Service was acceptable, the staff friendly, but were a little listless, like a team just going through the motions and I didn't feel the love.

Yeah, the tapas was good enough to head back to ISONO for, but I'm not sure I'd stay for mains.  I think the next time I go, it would be with a larger group for snacking.

Most of our food came out at the same time, we would have preferred a short break between each 
It was very quiet inside ISONO
Great view of the cityscape from our table
Quite an industrial feel to ISONO
There are bars all over the dining room at ISONO

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