Issara is a spinoff from Blue Orchid, and if you’ve followed any of my reviews, you know I had a hate-hate-like-okay relationship with Blue Orchid. But everyone was raving about Issara and said they opened the right way this time, and the service issues that plagued Blue Orchid’s opening were totally absent from Issara. I have to agree that the service is excellent.
I chose to visit on a Monday night during a wine-paired affair with wines from PWM, an importer owned by Master Sommelier, Jesse Becker and his wife Elizabeth. The wines emphasize French, German, and Italian terroir and minerality, so it must’ve been somewhat difficult to find five “Thai fusion” dishes for the five wines.
It’s hard not to be critical of Issara’s atmosphere. It’s supposed to be a classy place, but it is still in a strip mall and it smacks of a cafeteria. The room is loud and echoing despite suspended tiles to dampen noise. And there are two two-top tables woefully placed against the wall, one of which is right by the restrooms, and the other is right by the doors to the kitchen. No one would ever want to sit at those tables if given a choice.
The first pairing was a 2011 Castelfeder Moscato Giallo with some amazingly fresh mussels prepared with lemongrass, basil, and butter.
Unfortunately, maybe, this was the highlight of the five-course plan. I’m always skeptical of seafood in Nebraska (you should be, too), but Issara is doing something right in sourcing the seafood, and all of the seafood in the dishes was enjoyable and fresh. It’s a viable seafood spot, something I never thought I’d say about a restaurant in Lincoln.
Next came a papaya crisp salad with a tamarind/red chile sauce paired with a 2011 Cantine Povero Moscato d’Asti. The papaya and tamarind have a natural sweetness, and so did the wine. The sweetness in the wine was supposed to cool the heat from the red chile sauce, but I found the sweet-on-sweet pairing a bit much for my salt-craving palate. The papaya salad was very good, though.
And then out came a cold noodle dish, a hiyashi chuka, paired with the obscure 2011 Castelfeder Kerner. Kerner is a grape grown at the highest altitudes in northern Italy.
I was surprised I liked the shrimp and chicken cold with cold noodles. I’m normally a hot-food-only person for dinner, but this was clean and went well with the clean taste of the wine. Unfortunately, it was at this point after 3 of the 5 dishes that I realized the portions were simply too large and it would be difficult to enjoy two more dishes, especially when I realized the next dish was also a noodle dish. Back-to-back noodle dishes was a complete tactical error for the tasting menu.
I liked the flavors, but I had barely eaten any of it and I realized there was no way to finish this and have scallops to finish. The staff were more than understanding, and boxed it for me. They admitted the portions were too large, and so all was well. They were 1/3 portions of regular menu items, and should’ve been 1/4 portions. The wine was a 2011 Cantine Povera Barbera d’Asti, and I pretty much drank it without eating the noodle dish. It is not finished in oak, only stainless steel, so it has what is described as a “tanky” note, or a “reduced” presentation because it has not been exposed to oxygen. I found the tankiness a bit jarring, but maybe it would’ve been better if I had been able to enjoy it with the food.
And at this point I was about to call it a night, but an extremely unnecessary bowl of rice appeared with two very fresh scallops seared in butter with a passion fruit sauce. The wine was a 2011 Castelfeder Gewurztraminer. At this point I was generally too full to enjoy anything, and the richness of the butter and the scallops with the passion fruit was really too much for me to handle. I’m not sure I would’ve liked this dish on an empty stomach, either, because there was so much residual butter on the scallops that it made everything taste like butter. But then again, scallops don’t have much flavor of their own, so you’re likely never going to make me enjoy them.
What is the take-away from all this? The service is excellent at Issara and there’s a genuine wine program there, something fairly rare in Lincoln. The seafood was surprisingly fresh. The atmosphere is a bit unimpressive, given what they’re aiming for. The food is generally really good, but the five-course tasting menu wasn’t very well planned. Overall I think it’s a good addition for Lincoln and should be a model for what new restaurants should be shooting for.