left: Zucchini in spiced herbed yogurt and salsa macha; center: Creative cocktails; right: Spicy Thai green curry with basmati rice
Photographs: Alexandro Loayza
Australian food and drink have come a long way from Fosters, shrimp on the barbie and the bloomin’ onion. Like American food, Australian is a blend of English colonizers and immigrants from Europe, the Middle East and Asia. At Isla & Co (pronounced I-la, like “island”), which opened recently in downtown Fairfield next to the Community Theatre, that means a contemporary cheffy upgrade on classics, a focus on vegetables and no fear of flavor.
The concept is Down Under café culture, starting in the morning with good coffee and brunch (see sidebar), and continuing in the evening with cocktails and dinner. The concept was started by a group of Aussies who opened the first Isla & Co in hip Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Isla & Cos are opening in West Palm Beach, Atlanta and Dallas, with even more in the works. (This is not the first Australian restaurant in Fairfield County; we put Stamford’s Flinder’s Lane’s passion fruit pavolva our must-try list (see the October 2019 issue our sister pub, Stamford magazine).
Executive Chef Matt Foley, who developed the menu, was a sous chef at Marea, the two-Michelin-star seafood restaurant in New York City, and he has experience growing a restaurant concept. At a recent preview dinner hosted by the restaurant, we sat on the spacious brick patio and ordered from the dinner menu. Isla & Co has a small, forty-five-seat interior filled with French café tables. The clean contemporary design features a wall staggered in climbing plants. The bar offers a window into the kitchen and sightings of the chef.
The Basil Gimlet cocktail was a smooth and refreshing blend of pineapple, lime and basil vodka, with an aromatic sprig of fresh basil. The Kings Cup, a cassis-hued, tequila-based concoction featuring mint-infused amaro and fresh mint, was lightened by a splash of ginger beer. It was refreshing and herbal. Wines are chosen from Europe and Australia, and the beers include a local IPA from Oceanside, New York.
Our favorite starter was the steamed clams served in their shells in a bowl of white wine sauce, rich with leeks, garlic, chiles and ’nduja, a soft spicy sausage from Calabria, Italy. The clams were sweet, juicy and fresh. A thick slice of grilled sourdough bread, perched on the side of the plate, let us sop up every last taste of sauce. Another starter was a classic English sausage roll, puff pastry enclosing a juicy pork sausage. It was served with an Asian-influenced sweet-spicy dipping sauce.
A main of Thai green curry was redolent of fresh herbs, Thai basil and cilantro. A punchy sweet-sour sauce coated spears of soft eggplant and strips of red bell pepper. Fish and chips came with tartar sauce mildly tarted up with yuzu kosho, a Japanese fermented paste of hot bird’s-eye chiles, salt and citrusy yuzu.
For those looking for comforting, less spiced dishes, there’s roasted chicken with seasonal vegetables, and braised short ribs with smashed potatoes and roasted peppers.
Sides are stars of the table, bursting with flavor. Roasted carrots, the multicolored farmhouse style we’ve grown to love, are sliced lengthwise, roasted to bring out their sweetness, and tossed in a Vietnamese-style, umami-rich nuc mam, with thinly sliced red onions and lots of fresh basil and cilantro. It was like a farm-to-table, vegetarian (protein-less) version of the Thai salad called “yum.” Another must try: zucchini. A visually arresting dish of soft, juicy, charred zucchini spears placed over a luscious green herb yogurt, and hit with a bit of nutty, garlicky, spicy macha salsa, it was a lesson in how to transform a standard veg into an exciting dish.
Puddings, as English desserts are known, are seriously sweet, and can feel like a lot after a whole meal. The sticky date cake with bourbon caramel sauce and mascarpone is as rich and moist as it sounds, and it deserves to be shared over strong cups of coffee, perhaps as an afternoon treat. Isla & Co is an island of Australian hospitality any time of day. More at isla-co.com.
Brunch Served Every Day at Isla & Co
We went back for brunch anonymously days after Isla & Co opened. Busy Fairfield County folks tend to think of brunch as a long, relaxed, weekend affair, but Isla & Co could change that—brunch is offered every day from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Coffee is a serious focus, and on our visit, the espresso was rich and strong. My dining companion asked for a little extra milk to mellow out her latte, and the young, eager server was happy to comply. Sambal Scramble is the signature egg dish, with spicy chile sambal sauce and herby green harrissa to give those eggs some character. Sourdough toast and a choice of bacon or avocado come with it. The Brekkie Roll, a soft, toasted brioche bun layered with scrambled eggs, melted cheddar and crisp bacon, was utterly satisfying, and allowed the choice of a salad of arugula and paper-thin radish rounds tossed in vinaigrette, or frites. The Benedict features salmon, and the avocado toast is seasoned with feta and almond dukkah, a nutty spice blend from Egypt.
Mushroom toast is a hearty upgrade on an English breakfast standard. A slab of toasted sourdough was piled with sautéed cremini mushrooms. Upon it sat a white orb of poached egg, showered with grated Parmesan, and topped with a sprig of feathery dill. We cut into the egg, and the bright yellow yolk ran over the cheese and mushrooms, creating a sauce that absorbed into the bread.
French toast is topped with sweet poached peaches, which make the dish sing. Brioche, rich and buttery, creates a fluffier texture, and topped with the divine peaches, melting marscapone and drizzled with maple syrup, this dish is an indulgence—so why not order one for the table to share? The brunch menu also offers salads and healthful grain and vegetable bowls. Meat is not overlooked; the burger features grass-fed beef. We left brunch feeling full and content. It was Wednesday, but for an hour or so, we felt like it was the weekend.