REVIEW WRITTEN BY LEN LEAR
For Digital First Media
Scott Aaron, who is now 36, started working in restaurants at age 13 at the Coffee Station in Morton, Delaware County. He eventually graduated from the Restaurant School of Philadelphia and later worked at several restaurants on the Main Line such as Plate and Gillane’s, both in Ardmore, and Tango in Bryn Mawr, where he was a sous chef. During an interview several years ago when he was at Plate, he told me, “My workers in the kitchen say I’m another Gordon Ramsay since every other word out of my mouth has to be bleeped out.”
Just a month or so ago, Aaron was hired as the executive chef at Isabella’s, the charming 5-year-old Mediterranean restaurant at 382 E. Elm St. (at Cherry) in Conshohocken in a corner building that was formerly home to Jerry’s Jumping Joint. “I redesigned this place completely because of all the new residents in the area,” explained owner Tom Richter, who floats around the dining room schmoozing with customers. Richter, who has one of the most resonant voices I have ever heard, named the Mediterranean restaurant for his 25-year-old daughter.
While seeing the affable Aaron after so many years, I could not help asking if he still has a potty mouth in the kitchen, like Gordon Ramsay. “No more,” he insisted. “After having two kids (Jake, 8, and Emma, 6), they broke me of the habit. They teach you patience.”
One thing that has not changed, though, is Aaron’s alchemy in the kitchen. The chef has a sensible-shoes sensibility toward his food. He is not trying to strip-mine conventional Mediterranean cuisine but simply do it as well as anyone in the area. His new menu is busting a few moves. It’s a buffet of creativity. For example, an appetizer takes a pedestrian asparagus, wraps it with prosciutto caressed by a tempura batter and accompanied by a rich goat cheese dipping sauce ($6). You want to eat this dish so fast that you might get a moving violation.
Working with grape leaves can be a pretty tough needle to thread, if I may use a mixed metaphor, but the grape leaves stuffed with Kobe beef are brightened by the judicious addition of a pretty Piquillo pepper (a sweet variety of chile) sauce ($10). An appetizer of glazed shrimp skewers comes with fried shallots and a spicy sauce with pepper flakes that take this dish up through several stratospheres of sin.
A Tartufo pizza with mild mushroom, goat cheese and other good stuff was somewhat overcooked, and a few pieces were slightly burned ($18).
A super-sweet Watermelon cocktail special was just so-so, but I have to ransack through the closet of my memory to recall a more enjoyable summer cocktail than the pear vanilla Mojito that explodes with fruity flavor ($12). I had a glass of Montoya Pinot Noir ($13) with the grape leaves dish, and as Damon Runyon would have said, I liked it more than somewhat, although the pour was a bit stingy.
Server Michael Phongsak, of Thai origin, an engineering student who lives in Roxborough, is enough reason to go to Isabella’s all by himself. He is super-efficient and loaded with personality. Hostess Diana Brogete, a native of Russia, and bartender Lana Barnes are also charmers.
Isabella is a handsome bi-level property (the second floor is used for private parties, dance and art classes, etc.) with vaulted ceilings, huge windows, hand-made wood tables and floors and a stunning bar. It seats 47 for dining, 14 more at the bar and 20 to 25 on an outdoor patio.
When we visited Isabella’s several years ago, the din was quite loud, but during our recent visit the sound was not an issue at all (and it was a Friday night). Dessert-wise, chocolate chip bread pudding served warm with vanilla ice cream was a chocolate lover’s dream ($6), producing a low moan of pleasure. Indulging in it feels like the delicious frisson of transgression. Happy Hour is Tuesday to Friday, 5 to 7 p.m., when there is half off draft beer as well as select Martinis and glasses of wine for $6.
For more information, call (484) 532-7470 or visit www.barisabella.com.