When hot restaurant trends bounce from the Big City out to the burbs, there's bound to be some reverb effect. There's a natural delay as those concepts travel to far-flung tables, but sometimes there's also so much distortion and dilution that those exciting flavors can lose their soul.
And that's why Isabella is such a pleasant surprise.
It was only a matter of time before the small-plate Spanish hits of Jose Garces and the artisan pizza craze launched by Marc Vetri and so many others found their way to interpreters on the Main Line and beyond. Bryn Mawr's Verdad was one of the first, but the field has picked up steam of late, with still-new Matador doing tapas in Wayne and Cantina Feliz in Fort Washington, where Tim Spinner is nailing the Nuevo Mex flavors he helped Garces create at Distrito.
Isabella in Conshohocken is yet another entry, though I can't say expectations were especially high when I set the parking brake on this hilly stretch of East Elm Street. Perched on the sloping corner at Cherry Street, this tall stucco building was once a weekly-rate hotel and tavern known by a string of colorful names - the Boom-Boom Room, Jerry's Jumpin' Joint, the Red Dog Inn, and Philly Blue - until longtime owner and developer Tom Richter finally saw gentrification squeeze the old clientele off the block. It also opened another window.
After a major gut and revamp, the building has been reborn with walls of cantaloupe-colored stucco dappled with shimmery mosaic tiles, community tables, and church-pew banquettes inside the lively room, and a big picture window accented with Richter's own stained glass that looks out onto a rowhouse neighborhood on the city's former industrial edge.
It's still a more likely destination for train-spotting than trend-spotting. But that hasn't stopped chef Michael Cappon from tackling a full-on roster of current dishes, from heat-blistered pizzas made with house-pulled mozzarella and truffle to creamy bites of seared foie gras perched on crisps of dehydrated chorizo.
Such a seismic culture shift doesn't happen overnight. Cappon concedes the locals may not yet be ready for some delicacies, such as fried whole sardines ("they've got bones!") or the $19 nibble plate of black-footed Iberian ham, both 86'd in early adjustments to the neighborhood's adventure-dining meter.
But ambition is one thing Isabella and its chef do not lack. The menu seems at first glance a mashup of Garces' Amada with perhaps a dose of Bar Ferdinand and a secondary repertoire of Italian faves, from Neapolitan-style pizzas to some very familiar spinach gnocchi in nutmeg brown butter, which would be Vetri-esque if they were significantly lighter. Why anyone would deliberately add floury heft to those airy wonders, I don't know.
There are a few other rough edges that still need some refinement - such as the pizza dough, which I found to be one-dimensionally dry and cardboardlike. The wine list has some interesting affordable bottles. But it's weak by the glass on the kind of Spanish choices I'd expect from a tapas bar (what, no crisp Manzanilla?), while the bar seesaws enthusiastically between the fufu-tinis I despise and a list of Belgian-style ales I adore - even if they seem as out of place here as the pulsing Latin soundtrack. (There's salsa on the stereo, and in Isabella's private dance studio upstairs, but the menu is entirely Eurocentric, save for the obligatory Kobe burger.)
The experience works as a solid neighborhood option, though, because Cappon brings some notable personal touches to these plates, including a burrata beggar's purse of house-made mozzarella stuffed with house-made ricotta, sided with truffled honeycomb and beguiling little crumbles of crushed Marcona almonds spiced with smoked paprika. It's a simple dish, but one with wonderfully vivid flavor contrasts that allow the effort that went into those house-made ingredients to shine. Another tiny flourish - a mince of charred onions - added a memorably rustic edge to the "pinchos de carne," a skewer of tender beef morsels marinated with ancho chile that came over an earthy puddle of porcini crema.
For someone who has never formally cooked Spanish food, Cappon, a Syracuse, N.Y., native who spent three years as director of culinary operations at Marathon Grill, acquits himself well with the essential flavors, some of which might be familiar to denizens of Philly's tapas scene.
There are figs stuffed with Valdeon blue cheese and rolled in spiced Marconas, but it's the bourbon marinade that softens the figs into boozy distinction. Beautifully grilled octopus comes with fennel and peppery greens tossed in limoncello-honey vinaigrette. Huge U-10 shrimp come in a flavorful rendition of gambas al ajillo, glossed with browned butter and the sweet pique of roasted garlic. Pepper-dusted little lamb chops make the scene with sweet dabs of a sherry-fig reduction. There are bountiful platters of good charcuterie (Serrano ham; fennel salami; and chorizo Pamplona), as well as great cheeses such as Piave and Valdeon, for group grazing. Chorizo spikes the garlicky tomato broth that bathes a bowl of steamed littlenecks. A rich risotto-style rice is studded with mushrooms and laced with truffle oil for the veggie decadence of hongos y arroz.
There are a handful of dishes that need more work. The calamari had a wonderfully exotic seasoning to the crust - but there was far too much crust. The tomato bisque gratineed with a Manchego crouton was thematically apt, but in the eating, it was a step down from the classic grilled cheese-tomato soup combo. The braised pork belly could have been spectacular over its sweet-pea puree - but it wasn't quite as tender as it could be. Likewise for the pizzas, which I found pretty ordinary, though truffle oil is always a cheap way make half the dining room swoon (I heard many raves from neighbors about the "tartufo," which I found dry), and the kitchen gets genuine props for homemade fennel sausage as an option. I would have liked the "shrimp croquetas" more had they been called arancini, because these crispy little rice cakes were not preferable to the creamy, bechamel-centered croquetas that are more traditional for tapas. The restaurant's "carne de vaca" gives new meaning to the cheesesteak, slathering the N.Y. strip with molten blue-cheese crust - but this so-so cut of beef was slightly overcooked, making the combination taste overwrought rather than indulgent.
There were just as many hits to compensate. The chicken entree (which I'd normally ignore) was a plump and juicy breast marinated in chile and oregano, then fanned over saffron couscous scented with cuminy tomato vinaigrette. A beautifully fresh fillet of red snapper came crisped inside a crust of crushed shoelace potatoes alongside a zippy piquillo pepper vinaigrette. Salad eaters will find satisfaction in the oil-blanched tuna atop microgreens with capers in a revamped Nicoise. Even the seafood fettuccine, which wasn't much for presentation, rose to the occasion with a generous helping of scallops, calamari, and shrimp tangled in fresh ribbons and lightly buttered bright tomato glaze - a fair bargain for $16 on a reasonable menu that cracks $20 only a few times.
The dessert course wanders away from the Mediterranean theme toward chocolate mousse with almonds, banana brioche bread pudding, and intense coffee crème brûlée. They are all pleasantly sufficient, if not necessarily the reason to come. Isabella has plenty of other genuine draws to compensate, as it translates some of the city's hottest food trends for the burbs with a little time-delay reverb, but not much distortion at all.
Contact Craig LaBan at firstname.lastname@example.org, 215-854-4795 or on Twitter: @CraigLaBan