SquareMeal Review of Isabel
With its opulent, gold fabric-lined walls and geometric rows of polished brass lamps arrayed across the ceiling, this glossy sibling of Notting Hill’s Casa Cruz has fitted into its smart Mayfair setting like a Versace boutique on Sloane Street. For some, this is a “top-of-the-top luxury experience”, although others think it’s a case of style over substance, with complaints about high prices and noise levels.
Either way, Isabel is a jaw-droppingly beautiful statement of intent from Chilean investment banker turned designer and restaurateur, Juan Santa Cruz. Food-wise, everything revolves around a low-carb, high-protein ‘small plates’ menu that blends South American and Mediterranean influences, with on-trend lactose- and gluten-free options throughout.
Above all, expect a selection of beautifully presented, precision-tuned dishes showcasing precise flavours: rosebud-like rolls of beetroot-cured salmon with a vibrant herb purée; perfectly seasoned, silky beef tartare topped with a vibrant quail’s egg yolk; sweet red prawns, grilled and served with chimichurri.
More substantial options might include grilled suckling lamb shoulder, veal paillard with sage and lemon or wild brill with leeks and capers, as well as the addictive paccheri pasta: al dente tubes folded in a creamy cheese sauce and sprinkled with bottarga. Equally indulgent desserts span everything from dulce de leche fondant to raspberry and white chocolate gâteau.
A final mention must go to the loos – each lavishly decorated with hand-painted De Gournay wallpaper and almost as good-looking as the staff uniforms created by Colombian designer Johanna Ortiz. Not surprisingly, polished (but friendly) service completes an undeniably pretty picture.
Wealthy people like to eat where the owner is, in the words of Margaret Thatcher, “one of us”, which is why Casa Cruz and Isabel, the London duo of restaurants from investment banker-cum-interior designer-cum-restaurateur Juan Santa Cruz, have proved such a hit.
Santa Cruz has an instinctive understanding that for a certain type of well-heeled diner, the look of the restaurant is as important (perhaps even more so) than the food that is being served. For the London fashion crowd – whether that’s staffers on the magazines from nearby Vogue House, Bond Street shoppers with money to burn or the photographers and models who make up the biannual jamboree of London Fashion Week – Isabel is a restaurant where the interior design is as striking as the designer clothes modelled by its customers.
Which isn’t to suggest that there isn’t some accomplished cooking on offer at Isabel, though be aware that the portion sizes lean towards size zero, while the kitchen’s formula of low-carb, high-protein dishes will not be a recipe for success for lovers of creamy sauces and indulgent side dishes.
That said, diners who eat out a lot for either work or pleasure will be relieved that the likes of radicchio salad with anchovy, parmesan and grapefruit, or cod with sprout tops, capers, black olives and pine nuts, won’t send them out onto Albemarle Street needing an afternoon nap or falling asleep on the tube home.
Breakfast and weekend brunch add to Isabel’s all-day appeal – there are pastries, French toast and a full English if you don’t want to go down the healthy eating route – while evenings offer the opportunity to sit up at the bar with a cocktail or glass of wine and some ‘para picar’ nibbles. Like all of the food here, however, the cost of the small plates is likely to lead to a very large bill.