About a year after the confrontation between owner and manager, Mike Isabella Concepts went belly-up, too, its handful of once-respected restaurants gone in the blink of an eye. Whether you’re a fan of Isabella or not, you can’t help but think that this upscale food court, with its recessed arched booths and its tongue-in-cheek gilt-framed paintings, was the place where it all started to unravel for the former celebrity chef and the dining empire he so quickly amassed.
Yet commerce has no taste, nor time, for funeral rites, so in a matter of months, Tysons Galleria found replacements for the former occupants of Isabella’s rambling food emporium. In December, management introduced A Taste of Urbanspace, a mouthwatering collection of, at present, six food vendors who serve up a colorful spectrum of delicacies, from lip-tingling Laotian noodle soups to French mille crepe cakes with the sweetest little purr of pastry cream.
A couple of these operators almost hide in plain sight, tucked unceremoniously into the tricked-out spaces designed for other restaurants. After hustling to open A Taste of Urbanspace before the holiday shopping season, the New York arm of the London-based Urbanspace made little more than cosmetic changes to the old Isabella Eatery. Crews installed new signage and plastered comic-book-like illustrations throughout the space, adding a cartoonish element to a mall that traditionally trades on its polished marble elegance. It sort of feels like a junior-high art class punked the place.
Once — perhaps “if” is the appropriate word here — you can look past the history of the place and the incongruity of its decor, A Taste of Urbanspace has a lot to offer diners. I mean, a lot. In fact, if anything will erase the mental images that linger after the implosion of Isabella Eatery, it’s a bowl of rice noodle soup from Sen Khao, the Laotian counter from Seng Luangrath, the chef behind Thip Khao in Columbia Heights and Padaek in Falls Church. At Sen Khao, Luangrath is working with chef Nyi Nyi Myint (Kyirisan, Water and Wall) on a small but irresistible menu, heavy on soups and sticky-rice dishes.
The pho Lao som at Sen Khao is one of those virtuosic bowls that almost defies description. With its base of sour chicken broth, the soup is a collision of colors and ingredients: garlic chips, scallions, stewed tomatoes, chile oil, fish sauce, dried shrimp, celery, preserved cabbage, peanuts and noodles. Its power is derived from its twin poles of attraction and repulsion, life and death, sweetness and decay. You won’t understand it, even after it’s gone. The fried chicken wings, glazed with a fermented chile sauce, don’t require as much contemplation. They will instead just wallop you with flavor and heat. You may never hanker for Korean fried chicken again.
Andy Brown, the founder of Eat Pizza, has already mastered the frozen pie market. But with Andy’s Pizza, in the space where Graffiato used to fire up the deck ovens, Brown can now bake his rounds to order. Emphasis on “can.” Based on my visits, most customers order their New York-style pizza by the slice. Each pre-baked wedge is then run through a type of conveyor-belt oven until warmed.
The slices are generally impressive. Their crusts sport the air pockets — and the subtle flavor — of a well-developed dough. Light on salt and slightly toasty, like good bread, the crust makes for a wonderfully crisp base for any of Brown’s pies. I’m particularly fond of his mushroom-and-onion combination, which is complemented with the sweet, muted pungency of roasted garlic. Brown’s reheating method works for most of his slices, I think, save the margherita, whose basil leaves shrivel and die inside the conveyor oven. Better to order a whole margherita, which allows you to sample Brown’s artistry as it was intended: straight from the deck oven, softer and chewier than the slices.
I’ve written much over the years about Donburi, chef and owner James Jang’s shops dedicated to the savory art of Japanese rice bowls. After a shaky start — my first bowl here was packed with clumpy, gummy rice — the Donburi outlet at Tysons has found its groove. Jang has even added something new to the menu, kake udon, a bowl in which long, chewy strands of sanuki udon noodles are submerged in a clear, tea-colored broth built with kombu, shiitake mushrooms, soy and other ingredients. Seriously, this was love at first slurp.
The outdoor escalators at a Taste of Urbanspace drop you off right near the Stomping Ground counter, the second shop from this Del Ray business, much beloved for its buttermilk biscuits. I would have loved my biscuit more if it had included the poached egg that I requested along with the housemade sausage and cheddar cheese. The biscuit itself is a large, flaky and fragile specimen, quick to crumble at the slightest pressure. You’ll have to eat your biscuit sandwich with a knife and fork, which may make you feel like a prima donna, but only until the butter, salt and baking alchemy put you in a better place.
Before you exit a Taste of Urbanspace, you’ll want to satisfy your sweet tooth. You can do this in one of two ways: Stop at Ice Cream Jubilee and start sampling flavors until an employee gives you the stink eye. (It will never come.) Once you settle on a flavor, you can have a scoop, or two, plopped into a cup, a cone or, if you’re feeling really indulgent, atop a crusty chocolate brownie sundae. Either the sweet-cream-and-honey or the marionberry ice cream is a terrific place to start.
You could also just wander over to the Lady M counter and order a slice of its exquisite signature mille crepe cake, which is made with what seem like a million layers of paper-thin crepes, each bound with light pastry cream. The slice will be gone before you know it. Come to think of it, so may Lady M. I’m told the shop may move to another spot at Tysons Galleria. I’m further told that other changes are planned for a Taste of Urbanspace, including, possibly, more shops. One day, I’m certain, they will collectively wipe out any memory of Isabella Eatery.
Hours: 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday; 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday; and 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday.
Nearest Metro: Tysons Corner, with a 0.4-mile walk to the Tysons Galleria.
Prices: Prices vary by vendor.