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Queen of Hearts 

The new Club Isabella earns the love

On its surface it was just an egg. Yet the orb also presented the table with a Sphinxian riddle. The egg was deep fried whole, leaving the breaded exterior crunchy as an onion ring. When sliced across the equator, however, the amber core oozed like molten gold. As we nibbled our way through the starter of beef tartar, fancy salts, and these crisp-fried eggs on toasts, it hit us: What happened to the shell? You certainly can't fry a raw egg, and had it been hard-boiled and peeled before frying, the egg's yolk wouldn't be runny.

It was a fun mental exercise on a night filled with serious food. (The answer: a brief and gentle poach followed by a painstaking shelling, breading, and frying.) The setting was Club Isabella, an odds-on favorite for Best New Restaurant of the Year. Seemingly out of nowhere comes a chef and restaurant that catapults ahead of the pack, leaving more popular faces and places in the culinary dustbin. To say that we are smitten with this chowhouse is a distortion of the facts. We. Are. In. Love.

So just where did chef-owner Fabio Mota come from? As former chef de cuisine at Johnny's restaurants, Mota has quietly, steadily earned big chops. But it was his role as co-owner of the old Club I that landed him here. As that restaurant's final keyholder, the chef always planned on resurrecting the brand, which died of unnatural causes at the hands of University Hospitals at the age of 25. Following three years of searching for the ideal spot, and another year of construction, Mota unveiled the newer, sharper, and, yes, better Club Isabella in June.

Similarities with the previous version stop at the nameplate and, perhaps, some physical attributes. Set in the former Goose Acres Music in Little Italy, the old carriage house-style structure has brick bones and cathedral-ceiling roof lines that conjure the past. But keen design work has buffed out all the age spots, leaving a wickedly sharp, contemporary room that is modern and snug. The shotgun layout allows for a seamless transition from the front patio, through a wall of disappearing windows, into the open-concept bar and dining room. Everybody, regardless of the seat, is invited to the party.

Mota and his crew have drafted an original menu filled with the sort of eclectic, intriguing dishes that make ordering a meal a delicious dilemma. Frog legs, succulent and swimming in a pool of herbed butter, are what chicken wings aspire to be. An earthy pork and black-bean sauce transforms a pedestrian plate of steamed clams into an Asian-kissed indulgence. And if there is a more enjoyable pursuit than spreading Club I's pudding-like roasted bone marrow onto buttery toasts, I'd like to hear about it.

Here's how you test a new restaurant: Throw everything you've got at the kitchen and see what they mess up. Pizza: Our clam, mussel, shrimp, and garlic goat cheese pie arrived thin as a wisp, crisp as a plank, and tasty as they come. Pasta: If the seafood capellini contained any more sweet crab meat, there would have been scarce room left for the al dente pasta. Chicken: Our spatchcocked Cornish hen melted in the mouth like poultry-flavored cotton candy. Fish: Served in a smoky cauliflower and pork-studded cream sauce, the monkfish truly does eat like meat. Pork: Cut with biscuit rounds to resemble the three seared scallops with which they shared the plate, inch-thick disks of braised pork belly are lush but not overly fatty. This is an entrée for the ages.

We didn't much care for a crock of gummy Brussels sprouts, and on a second visit, that enigmatic egg was less coddled than cooked. Our wild mushroom tagliatelle with peas, while delicious, was also treacherously salty. Service, during a very early visit, could have been far more efficient.

But here's where I type the line about my hope and belief that Club Isabella will have a run as long and prosperous as its forebear. If it does not, this town's just crazy.

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