If Naming a restaurant after the central figure in a gory bullfighting double tragedy strikes you as melodramatic and more than a little bit morbid, chances are good that you are not Spanish. The bloody, brutal death of matador Manolete has become so much of a cultural touchstone for Spaniards that albums, novels, and even two movies (one starring Adrian Brody) have been made about the toreador and his demise. Yet with the exception of car manufacturer Lamborghini, almost nobody seems to have memorialized the mortally wounded bull whose last goring was a historical one. That is, until Chris Bianchi reclaimed the name Islero for his new Modern Spanish/Hispanic restaurant, even going so far as to offer guests a brief bovine biography on the front cover of the menu.
Fortunately, bull skewers do not feature on executive chef (and Boulud protégée) Jessica Floyd’s menu; instead, the focus is on small, medium and large plates that can be ordered tapas-style or as appetizers and mains. On a recent visit with two of our friends, HungryMan and I ordered a few dishes from each of the menu’s three categories and found some to be genuinely wonderful. One of our very favorites, the arroz cremoso negro ($7) was very similar to a nutty risotto, flavored with heady winter truffles and tangy goat cheese. Better still was the color — a deep, inky black, nearly the hue of a squid ink risotto, but without any of that dish’s muskiness. Also excellent was the ensalada calamar ($10),
a medium-sized dish of fire-roasted Basque peppers, arugula and cumin-crusted squid, all drizzled with an almond-rich romesco sauce. This dish succeeded on the strengths of its complex interplays between sweet and hot, sour and savory, crunchy and tender. We could have eaten this all night long.
Mains were, on the whole, also winners. Of these, we loved the pato ($24), a duo of molasses-rubbed duck preparations, a meltaway black bean cassoulet and crispy strips of duck bacon. HungryMan found the braised duck leg to be much moister than the breast, but both were still worth finishing. So too were both the cordero ($25) — another duo, this time of lamb with pungent, smoky onions and a lovely golden brown toasted manioc (farofa) crumble — and the carne ($19) — a sherry-infused steak with a crunchy garbanzo hash and burnt basil vinaigrette.
My order of bacalao ($18) may have been the most unusually-presented main of the evening, but the coil of “curly mashed potatoes” atop my cod looked and tasted like a week-old funnel cake. While we understand the motivation to introduce a little textural contrast to the soft fish, these fried swirls of mashed potatoes were too tough and chewy to provide anything more than an obstacle to finishing the otherwise decent fish.
Fortunately, only one dish was a complete misstep: the crunchy okra ($7), an emphatically non-Iberian, non-Latin salad of battered okra nuggets, black hijiki seaweed, sesame and lotus root. None of the four of us could eat more than a tiny bite of this flat-tasting, oily appetizer–nor could we figure out how such a clearly Asian-inspired starter found its way onto Islero’s menu.
One of our two desserts, the peanut butter spoons ($7) — a salty-sweet trio of chocolate and peanut butter treats — prompted similar questions about provenance. The richness of both the PB molten cake and the PB S’mores also left us thinking that such palate-coatingly rich sweets might be a bit out of step with the rest of the menu. The pumpkin churros ($7), on the other hand, made perfect sense both ethnically and culinarily, as did their spicy cocoa accompaniment.
As we polished off the last of our wine and discussed the meal, it became clear to us quickly that Islero’s considerable strengths derive mainly from one source: Floyd’s intellectually playful take on Iberian/Hispanic flavors. Indeed, the restaurant’s tragi-romantic bullfighting motif works well to contextualize a menu full of Manchego, sherry sauces and jamon. It would be a shame to spoil the theme with a spoonful of Jif and a few strands of seaweed.
247 E. 50th St.