Dine: Where to Eat Now
Isa | 79 Portland St. | 207.808.8533 | isaportlandme.com
The focus is on every last detail at Bayside’s newest bistro, featuring an ever-changing, globally influenced menu and some of the city’s best al fresco dining.
Tucked into an unassuming corner of the Bayside neighborhood you will find Isa, a small, inviting bistro whose subtle façade makes the intricate dining experience that awaits inside both surprising and exciting.
Isa is co-owned by husband-and-wife team Isaul Perez and Suzie St. Pierre, who met while working together at the well-known Brooklyn eatery Frankies Spuntino. St. Pierre brings with her not only extensive front-of-house experience but also an impressive background in wine, while Perez seamlessly combines training in French and Italian cookery with dishes inspired by his Mexican heritage.
“We had decided long ago that it was time to open a place of our own,” St. Pierre says. “We actually started looking for a space as far back as 2011. We searched between Portland and Biddeford, looking for something that was both intimate and of the appropriate size that the two of us could run the entire show by ourselves, if need be.”
Once it became apparent that the small brick building was going to be perfect for implementing their vision, St. Pierre teamed up with architect Martin B Dassa to create the overall aesthetic. “I had a very specific vision of a neutral space, dominated by black and white along with the exposed brick,” St. Pierre explains. “We painted the tin ceiling black, and opted for black and white tile on the floor, the entire room accentuated with soft, simple lighting.”
Although this would appear simple enough, each and every element of the design has been thought through completely, down to the ornate cast-iron table bases, mahogany bar, and modern chandelier, which hangs directly above the entrance and serves as a conversation piece on the way in and out. To the side of the building is a sliver of quiet patio tables, including bench seating.
“At the end of the day, it’s really all of the personal touches that keep me going,” St. Pierre says. “And I love the challenge of creating a space that is both aesthetically pleasing and functional as a restaurant. I’ve certainly paid attention and learned a lot of important lessons from watching people do things the wrong way.”
In the kitchen, Perez has put together a menu that incorporates everything from ripe South Carolina peaches cooked on the grill and paired with tangy goat cheese and balsamic vinegar, to an impossibly tender rendition of octopus, served with whole chickpeas, pesto, and a very rich Sicilian olive oil. For his grilled pork chop he actually slow-roasts the entire herb-marinated loin before glazing with Dijon mustard, then cuts off each slab to order and finishes it on the grill. This results in a rich, buttery texture in the meat, which is perfect against a background of creamy, smoky braised lentils and kale.
In regards to the wine program, St. Pierre freely admits that her primary region of interest is Italy, but she did not want to restrict the list to one place. What she does offer are primarily terroir-driven, Old World wines geared specifically toward Perez’s food. One such pairing is a cold glass of Librandi Ciro rosato from Calabria served alongside house-made garganelli pasta with braised rabbit and fresh peas.
What some might not know about Isa is that it is open all day, from 11 a.m. on, serving a slightly abbreviated lunch menu that includes a few special sandwiches, such as roasted pork panini and croque-monsieur, and transitioning into the full dinner menu at 4 p.m. There are few more enjoyable experiences than hiding out on the patio for afternoon cocktails before going inside for dinner as the sun dips down.
Since Isa opened for business in March, it has grown into the space, tightening up the menu and putting together a staff that, each time I have visited, is more akin to a family. St. Pierre and Perez even renovated the apartments upstairs, where they currently reside. “It’s one of the best parts of where we are,” St. Pierre tells me. “There’s literally no commute.”