Many locals have memories of the old Club Isabella, a favorite stop for jazz hounds that closed in 2007. The new place with the same name, a few blocks away in Little Italy, has been open since June 2011.
Besides reprising the same cool, sophisticated, elegance-in-jeans vibe, it's got little in common with the original. What links the two is Fabio Mota. He was co-owner and chef of the first incarnation in its last three years. This time around, it's 100 percent his baby — and food, not music, is the focus.
Mota, a quiet, self-effacing type, isn't much of a self-promoter. Although he's been cooking in Cleveland for more than a decade, including stints at Johnny's Bar and the long-gone Johnny's Bistro, the chef has kept a low profile. Until now. With this venture, he's created the ideal stage to show off his talent.
Despite the location and very good pizzas and pastas, this is not an Italian restaurant. Mota's style, rooted in the classical French training he received at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, is more experimental. He draws on world cuisines, using uncommon ingredients and avoiding shortcuts. So you'll encounter items ranging from bordelaise to chimichurri sauce and from sea squab (blowfish) to frog legs on a menu that will change six to seven times a year.
The best way to experience Mota's food is to nibble around the edges. I mean that almost literally. Nine substantial main courses appear in a box at the menu's center. But the real culinary action appears on the left, right and bottom of the single oversized page where appetizers, sides and other smaller portion options are listed.
Instead of the ubiquitous calamari with red sauce, Mota offers fried cuttlefish ($9), a relative of squid and octopus, cooked to a buttery softness tossed with julienned vegetables and sassed up with an Asian-style sweet and spicy sauce.
A personal favorite is the tartare sampler featuring three little mounds of raw beef, salmon and ahi tuna ($12). Each is minced by hand and seasoned with a blend of cornichons, shallots, capers, chives and tomatoes diced so fine they're invisible. But you can taste the result. A smear on a buttered toast point is flat-out wonderful. Mota makes the dish his own with a deep-fried egg that's poached, breaded, dipped in hot oil and presented whole with a yolk that's still, to my astonishment, runny.
At the bottom of the menu, Mota presents three pasta choices presented in downsized portions to encourage sampling. The most inventive on one visit was calamari Bolognese ($14). The ground squid replaced the meat in this classic ragout for a lighter yet equally satisfying experience.
If you prefer a centerpiece to your meal, Mota's entrees address the desire for familiar, hearty protein-centric fare, including steak, lamb shank and veal. Crab-stuffed sole, king clip and seared ahi tuna make up the current fish selections, but on one visit, I enjoyed monkfish ($22), a moist, flaky white flesh, known as poor man's lobster. It arrived perched atop a rich cauliflower and bacon gratin that was more indulgence than vegetable. I liked the duck ($20) too, primarily because the breast slices, though not as tender as they should be, were smothered in an excellent onion confit.
Bracket your meal with cocktails and desserts. The martinis and margaritas are a cut above the ordinary, featuring fresh fruit, herbs and top-shelf spirits. Sweets such as flourless chocolate cake with malted cream candied orange and vanilla bean crème brulee are baked in-house. A Pear Fizz, with bubbles from Domaine de Canton, delivers a nice autumn buzz ($8.50), and on one visit, the warm bread pudding with seasonal fruit and cognac-laced cream was just the thing in chilly weather.
Don't limit your visits to dinner. The lunch offerings are equally well-executed. Try the Croque Monsieur, one of the most decadent sandwiches you'll ever encounter. Forks are required to eat the assemblage of sourdough bread, melted Gruyere, ham, avocado and oozy poached egg ($8).
And the modern setting makes Club Isabella a fine choice for drinks, early and late. Sit at the long bar or settle into an armchair positioned in front of the fireplace.
By reviving an iconic name and a landmark that was once a neighborhood social club, Mota honors the past. But he's also improving on it too, inspiring a new generation of fans.