Thank you for having me in last week to get a first look at the newly opened Club Isabella and a taste of some dishes from the menu. Now, my question is: Fabio Mota, where have you been all my [professional] life? You say you’ve cooked at Johnny’s on Fulton, and the long-gone Johnny’s Café downtown, and most recently at the original Club Isabella, from 2004 until 2007 when it closed. But I never heard your name, saw your face, or knew anything about the guy behind my food. And now, suddenly here you are, bursting onto the dining scene with a gorgeous place of your own. You, along with your Cordon Bleu training in Paris, your serious attitude and original ideas, were something of a secret around here, but it appears your time behind the scenes is over. Based on what I’ve seen and tasted, I’m guessing that soon everyone’s going to be talking about you. I’m happy to get the buzz started.
Your space — a total and stunning renovation of a building on the fringes of Little Italy that began as a social club in the late 1930s and ended up as Goose Acres Folk Music Center in its last incarnation — is sleek, sexy and clearly a place for grownups. I can’t drive by the patio without wanting to stop and stay awhile, and I love the seamless segue from inside to outside thanks to those big sliding glass doors.
I’ve eaten much good food prepared by talented and skilled chefs in this town and around the country. So I know the difference between very good, good and everything else. You served me some very good dishes. For those reading this, here’s what I ate that really just knocked me out: fried sweet and spicy cuttlefish; a salad of Brussels sprout leaves, endive and Serrano ham in a lemon vinaigrette; calamari Bolognese; a croque monsier sandwich made with more of that ham, Gruyere cheese, avocado salad and a perfectly poached egg; and a roasted veal marrow bone with fleur de sel, toast brushed with clarified butter and a citrusy vinaigrette.
Sure you’ve got the pizzas, the steak, the burger — seems a prerequisite for survival these days. But you’re also being bold, working with some uncommon ingredients, doing dishes that are out of the ordinary and different from everybody else in Cleveland. I respect and applaud that.
Even the bar snacks — marinated, panko coated fried artichoke hearts in a kicky aioli, spiced and roasted nuts, a gardiniere of vegetables brined in house — were outstanding, which explains why they disappeared so fast. Kudos to your second in command, chef Rick Chandler: He did a great job explaining how things were prepared and what’s going to be happening in the kitchen. He’s also a great spokesperson for you and the restaurant, obviously excited about what you’re doing together there.
I don’t blame him. I am too, and I already see a serious contender for Best New Restaurant in 2011.
photos courtesy of Club Isabella and Pauline Lewis Photography