In a corner of the expansive IOI City Mall in Putrajaya is the spanking new Isabelle Restaurant & Bar. For fans of Italian cuisine, this true blue Italian eatery is a sight for sore eyes, with foliage artfully scattered in strategic spaces, intricate flooring near the entrance and a general low-key charm and elegance.
The kitchen is headed by Nicolo’ Delbono, a sweet, youthful-looking chef who has been plying his trade in restaurant kitchens all over the world since he was 17 years old (he is now 33). Nico, as he is better known, was also born in the restaurant business, as both his grandfather and father owned and operated restaurants in Italy – a tradition that dates back nearly 70 years ago.
Coming to Malaysia represents a leap of faith on his part, and an adventure that he has willingly embarked on in order to spread his culinary wings.
“I came here five months ago because I have a very good neighbour from my town in Italy and he asked me to come here and recommended the job. So I decided to trust in this project because I believe in it. Also the restaurant has my mother’s name, which is a happy coincidence!” he says, laughing.
At Isabelle (which is owned by The Cinnammon Group), Nico aims to introduce the sort of authentic, home-spun Italian meals he grew up with as a child and continues to love making as an adult.
“My concept for the food here is all about respect for tradition and recreating a typical Italian grandmother’s kitchen. So I don’t use a lot of items for the meals here, but what I do is concentrate on increasing the flavour profile of each ingredient,” he says earnestly.
To begin a meal here, go for the Burrata (RM55). This is a dish that highlights Nico’s culinary identity to a tee, starting with the Italian-made burrata and seguing into tomatoes two ways – tomato confit and fresh, sliced tomatoes alongside a wild rocket salad. The burrata is divine – pillowy soft with plenty of stretch and yield and a creamy aftertaste. This is accentuated by the plump tomatoes, which offer both firmness and a soft burst of sweetness in each of the iterations proffered.
Up next, try the Capesante Al Cavolfiore (RM62) which is essentially pan-seared scallops with smoked cauliflower puree, crumble and truffle oil. The scallop is the star of the show here and has been cooked perfectly, retaining both a light outer crust as well as tender, limber innards with a pliant, yet quietly firm bite. The cauliflower acts as a very worthy accoutrement to the leading star and adds smooth, creamy notes to the meal.
There is plenty to whet the appetite from the pastas on offer, but you would do well to treat yourself to the Paccheri Amatriciana (RM58). Here, large pasta tubes are coated in a house-made tomato sauce laced with smoked duck bacon, with pecorino cheese riding astride this configuration. The pasta has a lovely al dente firmness and this is accentuated by the tomato sauce, which is rich and slightly creamy. Having said that, these two elements would be fairly lacklustre without the addition of the duck bacon, which tastes remarkably similar to its porcine equivalent and adds lovely, salt-riddled notes to the dish, lending it an intoxicating, unforgettable quality.
Then there is the Risotto Del Giorno (RM80) which features risotto cooked the traditional way with fish stock and a tomato base. The risotto is also packed full of seafood in the form of prawns, mussels and squid. This is an indulgent, highly addictive dish which highlights the bounty of the sea and the fluffy, tender properties of the rice to perfection. There is nothing to fault in this aquatic treasure, which is oh-so fantastic from start to finish.
If stomach space permits, then definitely look at indulging in the Margherita Pizza (RM48), which is essentially pizza dough topped with just two ingredients: tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese. Although a margherita pizza is often considered a gateway pizza – basically the simplest pizza you can find – here it has been done absolutely faultlessly.
The secret to this goodness lies in the pizza dough, which provides a soft canvas that then segues into a crispy, airy crust. All of this is loaded with the tomato sauce, which straddles the sweet-savoury divide admirably – and the cheese, which adds a decadent quality to this uncomplicated dish.
Isabelle also has a Josper charcoal oven, which is used to elevate meats and seafood with a sublime, char-infused finish. To test these charcoal-grilled delights, try the Polpo Grigliato (RM160), which features octopus leg served with saffron mashed potatoes and tomato confit.
The octopus leg has been cooked sous-vide style for a few hours, before being given a final char on the Josper oven. The result is octopus that is tender but not chewy, basically a cephalopod that has retained bounce and spring. The blistered char spots on the skin give the octopus a lovely, burnished quality (although some pieces are charred possibly a tad too much) and this is buoyed by the mashed potatoes, which are ridiculously good.
To end a meal here, indulge in the bastion of Italian desserts: the Classic Traditional Tiramisu (RM45). In this iteration, the tiramisu remains true to its alcoholic roots (“we only use a little”, says Nico) and is a stand-out, delighting from the first instance with a richness that portends the end of all notions of “being on a diet”.
Although prices at Isabelle are on the higher end of the spectrum, you can taste Nico’s devotion to his craft in every mouthful, ensuring that every last ringgit is well spent on a meal here.
Moving forward, Nico says his goal is to incorporate a wider range of traditional Italian meals into Isabelle’s oeuvre, in a bid to entice more Malaysian diners with his particular brand of simple, well-made true-blue Italian meals.
“We have only been open for a month, so we do need more time to get everything settled in the kitchen. But after about a month or two, I want to introduce more food that concentrates on Italian culinary culture,” he says.
Isabelle Restaurant & Bar
GE-204B & 232A
IOI City Mall
Lebuh IRC, IOI Resort City
Tel: 03 8958 4794
Open daily: 12pm to 10pm