79 Portland St., Portland
I don’t know about you, but when I bundle up and brave the elements on the morning of a major snowstorm, I want some seriously good food in exchange for my efforts. On a recent Sunday, that’s exactly what I got from Isa.
Husband-and-wife team Isaul Perez and Suzie St. Pierre opened Isa about a year and a half ago on the stretch of Portland Street that’s home to such landmarks as Back Bay Grill and Bubba’s Sulky Lounge. The brick building Isa occupies, formerly the location of a custom kitchen-cabinetry business, has been beautifully renovated into a comfortable neighborhood bistro. Chalkboards on a wall list the names of local farms where key ingredients are sourced.
Bypassing the crowd lined up across the street outside Bayside American Café (formerly Bintliff’s), our group of four — my wife, our 12-year-old daughter, her friend and I — walked right in and snagged an empty table shortly after Isa’s 11 a.m. opening time. My wife and I quickly ordered two mugs of strong, smooth coffee ($3), from Portland’s Tandem Coffee Roasters, while my daughter enjoyed a glass of brightly colored hibiscus lemonade ($4) that was lightly sweet and tasted like “red, but in a good way,” as she put it. (I tried some. She totally nailed it: red.)
My wife also ordered a spicy, satisfying Bloody Mary ($8), garnished with a smoked-paprika-and-salt rim, a green olive, and a chunk of tangy pickled fennel. She liked it enough to order (and finish) a second, which for my wife — especially before noon — is saying something. For her meal, she chose the hash of the day ($12), a rich, slightly salty, melt-in-your-mouth duck confit hash topped with perfectly poached eggs. On the side was a pile of home fries that were nicely seasoned, though I would have preferred them a little crispier.
My daughter’s huevos rancheros ($10) were also delicious, with soft corn tortillas and a flavorful, mildly spiced sauce. The chef honored her request to leave off the usual topping of crumbly queso fresco cheese. Her one complaint was the apparent lack of beans — Isa’s version of the dish uses bean puree.
My croque madame ($11), an open-faced sandwich of prosciutto, Swiss cheese and a sunny-side-up egg, was positively otherworldly, with a balance of flavor and texture that was damn near perfect. Even the lightly dressed salad greens on the side were outstanding.
My daughter’s friend’s French toast ($8) was every bit as good — in fact, one of the best examples of the breakfast classic I’ve tasted in recent memory. With bread sliced nearly two inches thick, getting the inside fully cooked without overcooking the edges is no small feat. By that standard, this dish was a total success: delicately crisp on the outside and custardy all the way to the center, with a hint of citrus zest that made the flavor positively sing. A dusting of powdered sugar, a ramekin of real maple syrup, and two strips of thick, crisp bacon completed the entrée.
We finished our meal with a shared slice of coconut cream pie ($7), made with a toasted-coconut crust, a thin layer of chocolate ganache, and smooth, rich coconut cream. It was a fitting end to a spectacular brunch.
It took just one meal for Isa to earn a spot on my list of favorite brunch places in Portland. The lunch menu — also available at brunch time — offers plenty of other temptations that I look forward to trying on a future visit. And there will be a future visit, even if it means venturing out during another blizzard.
— Dan Zarin
Isa serves brunch Saturdays and Sundays, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.