An online dictionary defines value as "the worth of something compared to the price paid or asked for it?". Taking that definition and applying it to our dinner at Tabla last Saturday, then the value offered by their three course prix fixe menu for $24 can only be categorized as extraordinary. This was perhaps the best return on my dining dollar I've had in a long time. Tabla has a menu that lets you choose one item off a list of appetizers, followed by a pasta choice, then you select your entrée. I've been to Tabla several times before and have usually been, with a couple of exceptions, pretty impressed. I was anxious for this trip because of the new executive chef at Tabla, Anthony Cafiero, who took over the kitchen the first of March. He also spent time cooking under heralded chef Jack Yoss at Adam Berger's other PDX restaurant, Ten-01. This is Anthony's first time over-seeing a kitchen playground, and it was interesting to find out what he had cooking.
This Saturday, going against the grain of what you hear is going on out in restaurant land, the warmly cozy dining room was buzzing when we arrived for our 7:30 rezzies. Since I find decision making much easier with a drink in my hand, I ordered the Bicycle Thief cocktail while w had a glass of prosecco. I can not-so-humbly say I know my way around a cocktail or two, and am not easily impressed, but this concoction of basil-infused gin, campari, and carpano antica was sensational. A tricked out negroni and served up, the subtle basil notes played perfectly with the campari and antica. This was a great start! So w had a pretty good idea of what she wanted for her meal, and I asked our very friendly waitress if she thought Anthony would be cool with making my app/pasta/entrée choices for me. She thought he would be, he was, so I just sat back for the ride. Perfect!
Tabla usually features a different culinary region to focus a few menu selections on. This night it was the Spanish region of Catalunya, and soon to arrive at the table was w's chosen Calçotada, one of their regional picks. A plate of spring leeks, onions, and green garlic with a salbitxada sauce and aoili for dipping. The sauces were excellent, the seasonal ingredients nicely chosen, but just a smidge overcooked and limp. Anthony sent out for me a plate of Citrus-Cured Oregon Albacore (pic above left) with an olive and orange relish and housemade crackers. Two words: Oh yeah! The cure gave the fresh, inherently rich tuna a kiss of tartness and acidity, the relish a nice counterpoint, and crispy crackers just because. This was very good stuff. I was drinking a glass if Lirac blanc from the south of France that played beautifully with this.
While we waited for our pastas, Anthony sent out a pair of little albacore tuna fritters (at left) he was thinking of adding to the regular menu. Not only beautiful to look at sitting roundly on top of a pool of arugula pesto, but quite deliciously fried orbs with a pronounced fresh tuna flavor that didn't get lost under the dough or the pesto. We have vote yes to these would-be addictive bites!
One of the things I like about Tabla's menu is that it replaces the usual dessert choice that accompanies most 3-course menus around town with a pasta choice. Much more of a Euro feel that allows the diner to really taste the full breadth of what the kitchen can do. w's pasta was a Tabla staple, the Rabbit Ragu Pappardelle. The rabbit braised in white wine, porcinis, and tomatoes then shredded as always was tender, perfectly savory, and the fresh, housemade pasta had just the right bite. The kitchen sent out for me exactly what I would have ordered, the Herb Fazzoletti, which was again an über-seasonal selection of fava beans and asparagus over broken sheet pasta with lemon-herb butter and housemade ricotta. This was a dish where the favas and asparagus could easily have been overwhelmed by the herb butter or by the application of too much ricotta, but Cafiero kept everything in perfect balance and each bite let the individual ingredients shine through, the key with seasonal...or any...cooking.
While w waited for our entrées we had the server open the bottle of 2002 Bethel Heights "Seven Springs Vineyard" Pinot Noir (part of w's dowery, by the way...lucky me!) we brought along. This pinot, from a fabulous Oregon vintage, was young on opening and then proceeded to blossom, becoming a fragrant, berry, earth, and spice filled glass of sensual pleasure. A little FYI: Most '02 Oregon noirs I've had recently have been showing they still have years ahead of them and have taken an hour or more to open up. In other words, if you're popping those '02 corks, grab your decanters!
Entrées were up. w had another classic Tabla plate, their Duck Confit with chive whipped potatoes, braised greens, and a port poached orange. Done just right, crisp skin, tender meat...this is why everyone loves duck confit. I was sent out a plate...which I would have ordered for myself as I had my eye on the pork cheeks...of Grilled Monkfish (at left) with warm blood orange and lentil salad with curly endive and a green olive purée. One bite in and I'm glad the kitchen couldn't read my pork-addled mind. Delicious! The monkfish, which is a definite knife-and-fork fish and too often can be cooked to a softball-like toughness, was spot on. Moist, with a tender, meaty texture, and when mixed with the lentil salad and olive purée was complex and incredibly satisfying, sending different flavors ricocheting all around my very happy mouth.
When you pay just $24 for three courses of food this good, it seems like bad form (or insert other rationalization here) to not have dessert, so we ended with their Crema Catalana and the Espresso Cheesecake (below). w is quite particular about her crème brulée, and the Tabla Crema Catalana was declared an unqualified success. She thought the top had just the right "crack" to it. I was also similarly enthralled with the cheesecake, all creamy, sensual chocolate with a coffee flavored chocolate nib crust with a dulce de leche sauce. Both desserts proving that sometimes too much is just right!
Overall, obviously I was really impressed with the meal, especially Cafiero's pairing of flavors and textures. There were no jarring moments, and everything seemed to flow together. This was cooking that showed off the inherent goodness of the food, and by extension the chef's skill. Anthony is a regular at the Portland farmer's market on weekends, so I know he has the commitment to local produce and meats. If anything, it seems to me he has raised the bar even higher at Tabla from the previous chef, yet we still get to pay the same ridiculously reasonable price. Value defined!