Despite living diametrically opposite to Mayfair, somehow, I still get drawn to this pricey pocket of London because of its concentration of fine restaurants. In a square mile of London’s priciest real estate, a cluster of buzz worthy W1 eateries—from Sexyfish and Lucky Cat, to The Wollesley, Park Chinois, and Novikov, have courted well-heeled patrons for years, with the aim of keeping them coming back for more. And we do.
By no means the new kid on the block, Isabel has occupied the ground and lower floors of the same early-1900’s Beaux Arts building since it opened its doors in 2017. The local cognoscenti may have temporarily abandoned London for the Med, but thanks to clientele from the Middle East and North America, Isabel was doing brisk business on a late August evening when I met friends for dinner.
A small cluster of Parisian brasserie-style tables occupy space in front of the big picture window, all of which were occupied by bright, young things stopping briefly to pout for a selfie before continuing to talk over each other. At the entrance, you’re greeted by heavy glass doors encased in polished brass, propped open by the front of house team who are eager to usher you into the foyer. Mirrored panels add to the ambience, with vertical lighting strips and herringbone floors leading you in the direction of the main jewel box of a dining room.
This is a sexy space. A central bar area glitters beneath a canopy of golden domes, framed by brass and leather high stools on all sides. Black and gold is the theme. Walls are decorated with inlays of walnut panels and glittering tropical palm trees, which technically may sound out of place, but adds extra bling to the surrounding ambience. This carries through to the bathrooms, a series of blingtastic golden pods worth visiting.
You’ll find tables running along the perimeter of all four walls. Despite being on the small and pokey side, they carry a subtle nod to art deco motifs and are immaculately laid. There’s a disappointing lack of tablecloths (a personal passion of mine), which is perhaps a leftover legacy from pandemic times, since so few fine-dining restaurants continue the practice anymore.
I found Isabel’s menu well-designed and manageable, with a handful of dishes making up sections across small bites, entrees, pasta dishes, and mains. Prices are typical for Mayfair. For my starter, I enjoyed the red prawn carpaccio. Semi-sweet slivers of prawn balanced perfectly with punchy wasabi mayo and dollops of citrusy ponzu gel, topped with servings of caviar. Not the prettiest dish on arrival, but the crab tagliolini with fresh chilli was a butter-lover’s wet dream. Decadent and the perfect comfort food for any season. We skipped dessert, opting to drink our calories instead, with overpriced bottles of blush wine from Provence.
In fact, the place where Isabel really makes its money is on beverages. Basic, entry-level wines start from £70 ($100 USD), which is frustrating when you recognize vintages and know the real retail price-point. You can choose by the glass, but even as a party of two, the extortionate cost quickly adds up. Cocktails are no better. Given the downstairs ‘Dragon Room’ lounge and bar, I imagine the pricing strategy is by design to capitalize on after-hours nightclub business.
Service was efficient—almost too efficient. We did not get off to a good start with our server, who barraged us for drink orders within seconds of setting down menus. A request for an off-the-menu classic cocktail was made impossible, despite being the simplest thing to concoct. Multiple conversation interruptions followed, with an insistence to take our food order. I’m not sure if we had someone inexperienced or just unaware of how service culture works.
The food arrived quickly and with minimal fuss. I usually don’t take issue with this, but here, it gave the impression of wanting to turn the table around as quickly as possible, as opposed to being encouraged to savour the experience. I also took offence to the heavy-handed wine service. This is a major pet-peeve of mine, which usually results in me asking for the bottle to be brought table-side to serve at my own pace. Why do restaurants insist on doing this?
Service drama aside, I really liked the vibe to Isabel restaurant. It does attract a very specific sort of clientele, which makes for a lively buzz and is great for people watching. I expect things get a little rowdy after hours, which sadly we didn’t stick around for. What I wasn’t expecting was how good the dining experience turned out to be. The taste and quality of the food was outstanding, which is incentive enough to book in advance.
Restaurant – 8/10
Experience – 8/10