Take a stroll down Wythe Avenue in Brooklyn and you might notice a cozy, rustic, rather inconspicuous eatery with a simple wood sign announcing ISA. Designer and restaurateur Taavo Somer, the man behind Freemans and Peels in Manhattan, has slowly been piecing together the unique atmosphere which he describes as "primitive modernism." Together with chef Ignacio Mattos of il Buco, ISA offers a unique dining experience in a sustainably designed space.
Somer began the design process about two years ago when he dreamed of crafting the space, a former home, with his own hands. Inspired by his family’s Estonian background and DIY mentality, he soon realized he could call upon his many talented friends to help move the process along. He began contacting fellow woodworkers, ceramicists, and builders to contribute their skills and slowly, the space began to evolve.
ISA boasts beautifully crafted reclaimed wood, some of which comes from the Brooklyn Navy Yard and upstate New York. There is an overwhelming sense of geometry in the triangular patterns of the wood beams which line the ceiling and create shelves along the wall. The combination of unique furniture design, geometry, and lighting have transformed the reclaimed materials into elegant designs that create a highly refined aesthetic.
Drawing on observations from his former experience in the restaurant industry, Somer made a bold move and decided not to include heating or AC systems in the building. Restaurants tend to have to turn on the AC even during the coldest months due to the heat generated from customers and the kitchen. Instead of wasting energy, Somer decided to work with the forces of nature. A succulent rooftop garden designed by members of Brooklyn Grange helps with solar gain and window shutters provide additional shelter from the hot summer sun. In the winter, several space heaters and a wood stove serve the venue until sufficient heat is generated by guests. Additionally, the wood-fired oven provides warmth while also churning out a delicious array of specialty breads.
Like the simple yet elegant design of the built environment, the food follows a similar theme. Chef Ignacio Mattos joined Somer and began working on a menu last January. He joined the construction process doing remedial woodwork which allowed him to become part of the space and draw inspiration. Somer explained, “The food is an extension of the interior. My concept was primitive modernism. [Mattos] provides his interpretation of primitive modernism through the food.” Guests can observe Mattos and his crew at work as the kitchen is an open extension of the dining room separated only by a large workspace where final compilation takes place.
The idea of using basic ingredients while also taking the liberty to have fun and experiment, breaking from preconceived notions of what food should be, define the limited menu. An appetizer such as citrus, yogurt, granola, dandelion and dry scallops or a dessert that includes Jerusalem artichokes, chocolate sorbet and dirt are combinations most would not imagine but Mattos has found a way to make them work.
Many ingredients are locally sourced, coming from farmers markets, farmer friends or foragers. Several foragers on Long Island provide seaweed, mushrooms and watercress. Building on his DIY mentality, Somer has plans to transform three acres of land upstate into a garden that will supply ISA with fresh, homegrown produce.
While a little pricier than other area eateries, the rare combination of ingredients combined with the atmosphere make for a unique experience. For $50, diners can choose between two options that compose the nightly three-course prix fixe menu. An a la carte menu is available with about ten options to choose from, many of which compose part of the prix fixe menu. If not in the mood to eat but wanting to experience the atmosphere, enjoy a drink at the sleek, 18 foot long bar made from a single piece of reclaimed English Elm. A variety of homemade syrups add a unique twist to drinks, mirroring the founding principles of both the food and the overall design.
All images © Amanda Silvana Coen for Inhabitat