Two-time "Top Chef" contestant Mike Isabella has officially cut ties with Bandolero, the modern Mexican restaurant whose owners have been fighting a legal battle with their landlord for more than a year. The Georgetown small-plates emporium was also shut down earlier this month after it failed a health inspection.
When Isabella restructured his management deal with Pure Hospitality, led by Jonathan Umbel, the two parties gave themselves an out, according to the chef's publicist. Either party could dissolve the contract at any time simply by giving the other formal notice. Isabella gave his formal notice this morning.
"Obviously with Kapnos and G sandwich [shop] and G Grab and Go in New Jersey, three openings this year, I've been super-busy," says the chef, who also launched Graffiato in 2011. "You know, I own these restaurants. I just want to focus 110 percent on them. I want to keep growing Graffiato, like we've been doing. I don't own Bandolero and I don't have full control of operations, so it just didn't make sense for me to stick along with it at this point anymore. I wanted to focus on everything else of mine."
Isabella acknowledges that because his management deal gave him flexibility to focus on his own projects, he was not always aware of what was happening within the four walls of Bandolero. The chef was also not a defendant in any of the lawsuits against Umbel and his wife and business partner, Bethany Umbel.
"I've just been hearing what's going on," Isabella says. "You know, it saddens me a little bit."
The chef says that everything he created, whether the moody Day-of-the-Dead ambiance of the dining room or the recipes in the kitchen, will stay with Pure Hospitality and Bandolero.
"I concepted and developed and designed the whole entire thing for them," Isabella says. "They can do whatever they like with it."
If he ever decides to launch his own Mexican restaurant, Isabella says he will create a new concept for it, separate from what he developed at Bandolero. "I always like to do new things and different things. I get bored very quickly. So for me, if I were to do something else, I would create a whole different idea. I wouldn't want to use anything that I used before," he says.
With that said, Isabella says he has no plans to start his own Mexican restaurant. "I have so much on my plate that I can't focus on too many other things at this point," he says.
Despite Bandolero's hot-and-cold critical reception (The Post's Tom Sietsema gave it two stars but knocked its "Addams Family’s dining room") and the ongoing legal issues surrounding its owners, Isabella still has mixed feelings about leaving the place behind.
"Honestly, it's a little sad," he says. "I put a lot of work and effort into the whole entire concept and name and...the food. I loved that concept. I wish them the best. I hope they keep it going, and I'm sure they will."
Reached for comment this morning, Jonathan Umbel, managing member of Pure Hospitality, says that Isabella's name and images should be removed from the Bandolero Web site by the end of day. The owner also says chef de cuisine Juan Rivera (a.k.a. Tony Starr), who's worked with Isabella at Zaytinya and Graffiato, has been promoted to executive chef of the restaurant.
Umbel says he signed a confidentiality agreement with Isabella and can't say much about the situation. "We feel that it's really good for Mike to move on and focus on his projects," Umbel says. "We wish Mike the best. Chefs come and go all the time. It's probably best for all parties involved."
The owner says he doesn't plan to change much about the restaurant now that Isabella is gone, save for repainting the interior. "We'll probably warm it up a little bit," he says. "A lot of people said it was too dark."