The place is set back from the main road and fronted by a small courtyard with a frangipani tree. Walk past glass doors to step into a long, deep, black and white marble-floored area with rattan-weave ceilings. Bottles occupy the wall behind the bar, where a barman is furiously shaking a cocktail beneath three bamboo chicken-coop light shades. Fringes of green tumble from potted plants overhead, and bentwood armchairs with rattan seats and a cushioned bench under discreet backlights and selective spotlights welcome you to Isabel, the new belle, and younger sibling of the long-established Alexis Bistro.
Not pretentious in the least, it’s immediately welcoming, warm and elegant. The drinks list, with wines, beers, cocktails and other choices for the alcohol-deprived, outdoes the two-page food menu, with Small and Big Plates, and a selection accented with mainly Thai, Indonesian and Malay dishes with local ingredients — spices, herbs, curry mixtures, raw vegetables with seafood, beef, chicken and lamb, but no pork. There’s a small concession to Western cuisine in the Desserts.
We share brown and white rice with our selection of meat and vegetable dishes, served Asian-dining communal-style. Shiny brass cutlery with slim white handles lend a touch of glamour. Indonesian-inspired Urap Pucuk Manis (RM23) sets the mood — cooked sweet leaves and bean sprouts, highlighted with shredded coconut, herbs and torch ginger for a sweetly enticing taste of the exotic East. It’s raw, clean and aromatic, with a chewy, crunchy, fresh texture.
For the main meat dishes, the hostess strongly recommends the Grilled Chicken (RM42), Thai style, with a sweet dipping sauce. The chicken is marinated with fragrant spices and the firmness affirms it is free-range and not the mushy pap from a confined feedlot fowl.
Semi-charred on the outside, yet moist and tender when bitten into, it’s more refined, more subtle, and a step up from the street-style variety, which seems sloppier and coarser by comparison.
Ikan Tiga Rasa (RM72) takes inspiration from Malay and Indonesian-style deep-fried fish — a barramundi, fried until it’s crispy crunchy and rendered golden brown yet not oily, and when cut through, the meat within is white and firm without being dry. It’s the sauce that steals the show, however, being sweet, spicy and tangy, thick and fragrant with minced herbs and a garnishing of coriander and chilli. It goes very well with rice.
There’s only a small selection of vegetables. The choice of Grilled Eggplant with Minced Prawns and Tamarind Sauce (RM23) is a good complement, with hot, smooth eggplant pieces with a smouldering, smoky flavour and appetising, but not tart, tamarind sauce.
For dessert, it seems fitting to try the most expensive goreng pisang I’ve had at RM22. Two bananas are fried in a light batter, almost tempura-like, sweet and softly yielding beneath the fragile brown crust and accompanied by Gula Melaka ice cream, and yes, it’s rich and rewarding, creamy, and not as sweet as you’d think.
Breaking the mould of going local, we also have a slice of lemon pie (RM17) to finish off the meal. Plain looking after the rich colours and textures of the Asian dishes, it is sweet, sour, appetising and a good finish.
Isabel takes on traditional dishes, some of them street food, and elevates them with refinement, tuning, premium ingredients and a prepared-from-scratch approach that pays dividends. It’s a bold step, sticking to the straight and narrow traditional interpretations rather than veering off into the fusion path because it inevitably draws comparisons with the originals — Thai grilled chicken, Indonesian dancing fish, goreng pisang, for example — which have a long and developed history, yet we found the food to be polished, less oily and true to the originals.
Isabel Restaurant & Bar, 21 Jalan Mesui. KL. 03 2110 6366. Closed on Mondays, 12midnight-12noon; Fri & Sat, 12midnight-1am. This article first appeared in the The Edge Malaysia on Jan 15, 2018.