Gone are the glory days of Isola in this very spot, and its replacement has a thing or two to learn about good hospitality

The crowd of shoppers at IFC mall are spoiled for choice with the prospect of new dining options, with La Rambla and Market S.E.A. taking over the former Isola space, and Shake Shack set to open early this summer.

 

 

While it may peddle South East Asian food too, Market S.E.A. is by no means in the same league as Greyhound Café downstairs. The contemporary décor, casual fine-dining nature, and laidback ambiance are all there, but that’s where the similarities end. The interior was warmly lit throughout, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the terrace and sea view. Wood tones dominate the room, yielding a beachside resort vibe, complete with embellishments such as. suspended rocks.

 

We arrived at Market S.E.A. on a busy Monday evening when the restaurant was filling up quickly. Our reservation took us to a table so tiny it could barely fit the dishes to be ordered, which resulted in our request for a swap. “Can’t you see it’s full?” said the restaurant manager. Between these barking comments and the slamming of menus on the table, our hopes were not high for a good meal ahead.

Luckily, the food saved us from misery. The one-page menu is filled with familiar Thai signatures from pomelo salad to phad thai and coconut-rich curries. We began our meal with Thai fishcakes in the form of golden-brown discs of fish mixed with red curry and julienned kaffir lime leaves, deep-fried and served with a sweet fish sauce. Mango mango calamari salad (not a typo), featured shredded jicama and green papaya to offer contrast and depth of sweetness and tartness, enhanced by sweet, chopped mangoes. We could enjoy this salad without the calamari, which were dotted throughout the pile and underseasoned.

 

 

Sugar-crusted roasted chicken was the only dish on the menu requiring advanced reservation and was the highlight of our meal. The roasted bird was meaty and the skin crisp with the sweet breadcrumbs that doubled as a crust as well as topping.

Kale and okra in green curry is on point and rich in coconut, though it tasted like the vegetables were cooked separately from the curry and put together at the last minute. The curry part, however, was rich and best served with a bowl of steamed rice. Beef short rib in red curry was served with warm kale leaves. The short rib was previously slow-cooked and remained tender, and the red curry sauce was punchy and creamy throughout, packing heat that would grow on you as you enjoy the dish.

 

Phad Thai with tiger prawns was sweet and spicy, and the noodles loosely packed within a lacy egg crepe. Desserts were hit and miss. The signature grilled pineapple with pandan ice cream featured a wedge of pineapple that was tooth-achingly tart, served alongside icy pandan ice cream. The caramelised taro with taro ice cream, however, was worse. ‘Caramelised’ was merely a piece of caramel attached to chunks of steamed taro, and the ice cream was half-melted, more semifreddo style by the time it was served.

 

 

Cocktails are popular at Market S.E.A but the varieties are basic; we’d describe them simply as fruity with an Asian twist. The Bali Mary was a twist on the classic Bloody Mary. It was served very cold with a spiking heat of ginger and lemongrass, although a more balanced depth of Thai herbs would be welcome. The wine selection is modest but there are few outstanding labels that would seem fitting match of the spicy plates served at the establishment.

 

Service was a big issue at Market S.E.A. Between the eye rolls and unfriendly gestures we experienced at the entrance, smiles and manners were also in very short supply, as service seemed abrupt and interrupted due to staff shortage for a busy full-house Monday evening. While it took some effort to flag down a member of the service team, the servers are well-versed in the restaurant’s offerings and can offer valid suggestions on food and offer portion control—one saving grace.

Market S.E.A, Shop 3073, 3/F IFC Mall, Central, Hong Kong; +852 2624 9228

A meal for two with cocktails and service: around HK$1,000 

Rating: 3/5

How we rate
Each of our reviewers score restaurants based on four main criteria: setting, food, service, and drinks, taking into account more than 35 different points of reference including manners of staff, usefulness of the wine list, and whether or not the restaurant makes an effort to be environmentally aware. 5/5 indicates an exceptional experience; 4-4.5/5 is excellent; 3-3.5/5 is good to very good; and 2.5/5 or lower is average to below average. Before visiting a restaurant, the reviewers will book using a pseudonym and do not make themselves known to restaurant staff, in order to experience the venue as a regular guest—if this is not possible, or if we are recognised, we will indicate this in the review.