By Sara Moody, Owner of Swig – Professional Bartending & Events
Most people know Conshohocken for its Fayette Street restaurant boom—anchored by Chip Roman’s Blackfish—or its casual pub fare, but a few blocks off the beaten path at Elm and Cherry Streets lies Chef Michael Cappon’s Isabella, a neighborhood Mediterranean tapas spot as sophisticated as it is approachable. His brilliant orange walls adorned with local artwork, his chocolate tables and his mellow, European pop swimming from the speakers remind you this isn’t your father’s (or older brother’s) Conshohocken. Cappon’s plates and mixologist Malik Congo’s inventive, organic cocktails share more in common with the likes of that you-know-who Iron Chef than the Fayette standards.
Congo’s drinks are almost as big as his smile. Charming and confident, he takes pride in his product. As a former nightclub promoter he knows how to fill a room, and his fresh off the farm ingredients had packed the bar area on this late Spring weekday evening.
Arriving in time for Isabella’s Happy Hour, Malik met us with a grin and his popular Smoked Cherry Cosmo, a house favorite spotlighting site-smoked organic cherries infused in Crop Vodka for a smoky and exciting introduction to our cocktail crusade. He followed with a crisp, Rhubarb Mojito—not nearly as tart as your grandmother’s rhubarb pie—blending Oronoco Rum, mint and organic rhubarb into a refreshing concoction we wished we could take outside under the rhubarb-colored sunset. (Malik promised us an enclosed atrium is on its way.)
As Isabella’s $5 Tapas Happy Hour drew to a close we followed Mussels, Pinchos de Carne, and Truffle Frites—of which a nearby diner exclaimed, “These are the best fries ever!”—with a gin-lover’s Cucumber Lime and a cool Peach Margarita with a sea-salted rim. While the Peach Margarita was delicious (albeit expected), the Cucumber Lime was the surprise star of the night. Stronger than the evening’s predecessors, the combination of Philadelphia’s own Bluecoat Gin, organic English cucumber, mint, lime, and a hint of black pepper-infused in simple syrup and then strained through a cheese cloth–might even tickle the palate of the biggest gin skeptics.
But what struck me the most during the evening wasn’t the decor or the food or the drinks—it was the excitement in the air. Chef Cappon’s staff, from Malik to the server who handed us the Higo Borrachos and told us to enjoy with a glow and a smile because she knew we were about to enter into something special, made us feel right at home.
Find Isabella at 382 E. Elm Street in Conshohocken or online at barisabella.com. Reservations may be made by calling 484-532-7470.
All photographs credited to Sara Moody.