Isola is one of those restaurants that routinely crops up in magazines, reviews and forums as one of HK’s best – whether it’s for being the best Italian, the best pizza or the best view in town. Surely it can’t be all three?
Nevertheless, anyone with eyes and a functioning brain could cast an easy vote for ‘best view’, as seen above. Huge floor-to-ceiling windows not only give Isola a wonderfully light and airy atmosphere, but also allow you to soak up an unimpinged vista of HK’s harbour, beautiful both by day or night (save for HK’s never-ending construction sites). Isola also offers terrace dining for those of you courageous enough to brave potential downpours and bloodthirsty mosquitoes in order to enjoy the view. But a great view alone is not enough to make a great restaurant so onto the food.
Firstly, if your idea of ‘best Italian in town’ constitutes hearty dishes in ‘Mama’s favourite’ style portions served to you by jovial Italian gentlemen to the tune of That’s Amore (this idealised image may have spawned directly from The Lady & The Tramp, damn you Disney!), then Isola may not be your cup of tea, or indeed glass of vino. This is modern Italian dining in a refined setting (I loved the clean chic white décor and the beautiful lace-like woodcut details), with a menu stuffed with lots of fancy names, premium ingredients and nary a bolognaise in sight.
The bread was lovely and fresh, even if no-one bothered to explain to us the different varieties. No-one bothered to explain the sludge-coloured spread either; my boyfriend suggested it might be bread in paste form (!) and from the nondescript taste, his guess is as good as any. Answers on a postcard please.
Whenever I see scallops on a menu, I am powerless to resist so we kicked things off with scallops wrapped in pancetta on white polenta with black truffle ($208). These were as delicious as scallops should be – meaty, juicy and with that trademark hint of sweetness. Pairing scallops with some sort of cured pork product is a classic combination and justifiably so – the crispy salty pancetta complemented the sweet shellfish perfectly. Elsewhere, the black truffle dressing added an earthy little kick and the wisps of crispy onion on top were a decent addition. But the polenta, which I think was the white foam on the bottom, was one texture too far. I’d say it was one taste too far as well, but I can’t really say it tasted of anything. I don’t think it added anything to the dish.
For mains, I went for the strozapretti – hand twisted pasta with mixed seafood and fresh tomatoes ($188). This, again, was absolutely delicious. On first taste, you might think the sauce was a little bland but with each mouthful, it builds into something light yet really appetising. The pasta was gorgeous as well; you can definitely tell it’s fresh and hand-made, as it practically melts in the mouth (something I didn’t think pasta could do!). I was also pleasantly surprised by the amount and variety of seafood – and thankfully, it’s miles away from the pre-packed ‘fruits de mer’ other restaurants dish up. There were prawns, shrimp meat, scallops and squid, all in plentiful supply and all sweet, fresh, meaty and delicious.
The boyfriend opted for a stone-baked pizza and c’mon, even the photo is good enough to eat, right? It’s also far too big for one person! He went for the Piccante ($168), which was topped with spicy Italian salame (not a typo, that’s how the menu spells it!), mozzarella, tomato and black olive. It was good to see (and eat!) a salame that was not razor-thin slices of cured meat you can get from any old Park n’ Shop; this stuff felt like it had actually started life as a sausage and rather than just being salty, was robust and delightfully spicy. The pizza base was the thinner, crispier kind that I love and yes, it was possibly the best pizza I’ve had in HK. Admittedly, more the gourmet variety rather than comfort food designed for noshing whilst slobbed out on the sofa in front of America’s Next Top Model.
With no room (and no money!) left for pudding, we were served some complimentary petit-fours with the bill. I don’t really think this is an Italian tradition, more a signal of Isola’s high-end dining ethos and it was nice touch, albeit one nicer in conception than in digestion. They were a bit dry and the bow-shaped ones were utterly tasteless (the whirl-shaped ones were softer, sweeter and much nicer though).
A few more tips – have the strength of character to say no to mineral water, however snooty the waiter seems! We caved in to the suggestion of still water, hence adding a mighty $75 to our bill ($68 plus 10% service charge), enough for a whole meal down the cha cha deng! Others have commented that Isola is a little tricky to find – we cut through Lane Crawford to reach it, and following signs directing you to the roof verandah should lead you in the right direction (and provide that stunning view for free, which is actually where I took my photos). And if you’re hoping to do dinner before going to the cinema in the IFC (as we did), bear in mind Isola doesn’t open for the evening until 6.30pm.
So best view? Check. Best pizza? Check. Best Italian? For me, Isola doesn’t have enough range in its menu or offer enough traditional staples to make it the best Italian in town, per se. However, the combination of view, décor and quality of food do make it one of the best restaurants in HK, if a little overpriced. Save those pennies and share that pizza, next time!
Isola Bar + Grill, Shop 3071-75, Level 3, IFC Mall, Central, Hong Kong, 2383 8765.