It’s easy to walk straight past Isla without realizing it. The restaurant, which is tucked away on a quiet West Village street, has no sign hanging outside. With its stainless-steel-rimmed windows, white louvered shutters and tiled facade, it looks like a health clinic.
When you open the door, however, it’s like walking into a gag from an old movie. The wall of noise hits you like a tidal wave.
Buena Vista Social Club was belting away on the loudspeaker one evening, and a Prada party was under way at tables that had been pushed together in front of the bar, which was thronged with pretty women in strapless tops and guys in leather jackets. My friends were standing there, looking a bit dazed. One of them was hanging on to a glowing pink drink. “It’s a kamikaze!” she shouted, so I ordered one. It tasted like one of those sneaky tropical juice drinks they used to serve at Trader Vic.
We barely had time to feel the effect of our cocktails before a dark-haired beauty, dressed in what fashion magazines in the 50’s used to call “a crisp white blouse,” told us our table was ready. “It’s the best one in the house,” she said sweetly, leading us into the dining room to a horseshoe banquette in the corner.
Isla’s décor evokes the 50’s-Cuba in the heyday of the Battista regime, decadent nights at the Havana Yacht Club where sequins, mules and Merry Widow hats were more the order than crisp white blouses. The restaurant has been decorated with great style by the owner, Diane Ghioto, a former fashion editor at Elle , with architect Kate Webb. The floor is painted a brilliant cobalt blue, and orange globes are suspended from the ceiling on white nylon cords. The walls, blue-tiled or tobacco-brown, are hung with white light fixtures shaped like the petals of exotic tropical flowers, and lined with white leather banquettes and blue formica tables. By the bar-white Lucite, with white leather and chrome barstools-cocktail tables are set with orange plastic basket chairs from a poolside lounge in Miami.
You can imagine Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, on a romantic weekend, getting cheerfully plastered in this sort of setting-except for one thing. They probably liked to talk (at least, Burton certainly did), but in this room conversation is virtually impossible. The floor is poured concrete, the ceilings low, the walls tiled, the music high. I have never been to such a noisy restaurant in my life.
A loudspeaker above our table throbbed with Latin rhythms. The guy at the opposite table, who was wearing two pairs of glasses-one on his nose, the other on top of his bald head-seemed to be having a nice time, although he didn’t say much to his friend, who had a rhinestone stuck in the center of his forehead. We asked the waitress, knowing it was futile, if she would turn the music down. She did, but it was not long before it was up to full volume again.
Isla’s chef, Aarón Sanchez, says he uses “indigenous ingredients to demonstrate what contemporary Cuban cooking might have represented, had the country’s recent history been different.” He is well honed in pan-Latin cuisine, having worked at Patria, Erizo Latino and L-Ray, and he also happens to be the son of Zarela Martinez, the Mexican cooking authority and restaurant owner. His food is interesting and satisfying, and doesn’t overreach in its effort to lighten and update Cuban food.
For 50 bucks, four people can start dinner by sharing a Latin version of a plateau de fruits de mer , a selection of ceviches and oysters. Our waitress brought over a platter and set it down in the middle of the table. “This one is …, that one is …,”she said, pointing to each one in turn. We couldn’t hear a word of her explanation. “Would you like me to go over these again?” she asked. We just laughed.
There were four kinds of ceviche, and they were all delicious: slices of yellow tail in a soy sauce marinade; a creamy scallop dish; tender, lemony slices of squid; shrimp in a spicy cocktail sauce. The only disappointment was the oysters, Malpeques, which tasted muddy. Empanaditas, little stuffed pastry turnovers with salsa, were a trifle doughy as were the tostones rellenos, roulades made from plantains stuffed with beef picadillo.
But Mr. Sanchez uses Latin tubers to great effect, such as the wonderful mashed boniato which accompanies a grilled stuffed pork chop and tastes like a white sweet potato. Crisp yucca fries came with the charbroiled filet mignon (substituted on the current menu by the Angus strip steak), and a spicy picadillo of roasted squash beautifully complements the tamarind-glazed duck breast. “Drunken” chicken on the bone was given a jolt of flavor from a marinade of spices, rum and citrus, and it was excellent. One of my favorite dishes was the juicy head-on shrimp rolled in a crust of crushed fried plantain and served on a bed of peppery garbanzo rice. Mr. Sanchez is terrifically good at rice; it was the high point of his paella, the creamy grains lightly tinged with saffron and topped with tiny clams, chorizo, roasted peppers, mussels and shrimp. This was a better choice than the seasonal fish, a bland red snapper (since replaced with a wild striped bass). It came with scalloped potatoes perked up with a layer of salt cod (a play on brandade morue ), which gave it some zest; the mustard greens and a salsa verde made from tomatillos, green chilies and cilantro also helped.
While we were trying to enjoy our food, conversation became increasingly exhausting. It was like trying to make yourself understood to a foreigner who doesn’t speak your language, where every shouted word assumes a significance out of all proportion.
By the time dessert arrived, we were ready to put on woolly pajamas and retire. But the dark, fudgy chocolate cake with guava sauce and a chocolate starfish, and the pineapple tarte Tatin with rich coconut ice cream, were both delicious homey desserts with a Latin twist. A butterscotch custard, with gingersnap crackers, was also great. But don’t bother with the bread pudding, which tasted like raw dough and was so heavy it would send Castro to bed with his boots on.
With dessert, our waitress suggested we try one of their special teas, which cost $7.50 or $8 a cup. “It’s an unusual experience. You have it, like, once in a lifetime,” she said as she set down two glasses of hot water with something gray floating in them like children’s paper flowers. “Let them steep.”
My friend looked at her glass. It appeared to have a small fright wig at the bottom, which was actually a green sea anemone.
“I’m not drinking it,” she said, pushing it away. “It looks like a spider. I hate spiders.”
So I drank it. It had a faint, flowery aroma, and I found it a warm, soothing antidote to all the noise.
39 Downing Street
between Bedford and Varick streets
Dress: Downtown chic
Noise level: Ear-splitting
Wine list: Moderately priced, including Spanish and South American selections
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Dinner main courses $14 to $24
Dinner: Sunday 6 P.M. to 11 p.m., Monday to Thursday 6 P.M. to midnight, Friday and Saturday to 1 a.m
* * Very good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No star: Poor