Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Quick Bites PDX: Tabla elevates its game!

The past three times I've walked out of Tabla on NE 28th Avenue here in Portland, I am always left wondering "How in the hell do they do it?" Not how do they make the food. That I get. The question was raised again last Saturday night by the absolutely stellar quality of the plates coming out of Tabla executive chef Anthony Cafiero's kitchen (that's Cafiero with burners blazing behind him in the photo below right). Add to that the sheer ridiculousness of the value offered by their 3-courses for $24 menu and it boggles the mind how they are doing it. We're not talking tiny tapas sized plated here. they are virtually full-sized portions. This is without question the best dining deal in the city. Maybe one of the best restaurant values I've ever come across in any city. Cafiero, with owner Adam Berger's blessing, has put into play an über-seasonal menu. Cafiero relentlessly prowls the local farmer's markets, buying what's fresh and looks good. Now I know lots of chefs do this, but it's what they do with what they buy once they hit the kitchen that matters, and luckily chef Cafiero has an incredibly creative mind and palate that knows not only what tastes good together, but helps him find new ways to pull different flavors out of tried and true ingredients. Cafiero didn't go to culinary school, instead pursuing an arts education, and you can see it in the way his plates come together visually. Eating with the eyes is the thing you do first at Tabla.

When I made the reservation for Saturday, I asked for seats at the chef's counter so I could watch Anthony in action. While we perused the menu Cafiero graced us with a small plate of two of mornings market finds, padron peppers and cherry tomatoes (left) that had been suatéed and served arounda spoonful of lemon cream that I would gladly bathe in. With those flavors shooting around my mouth I opened my beverage search with their Bicycle Thief cocktail, a refreshing and nicely balanced mix of Campari, basil infused gin, and Carpano Antica. With the Tabla 3-course menu, you choose one appetizer, one pasta, and one entrée. w decided to get the eat fest started with their warm haricot vert salad, which was plated with chioggia beets, hazelnuts, aged balsamic and a fried farm egg. The green beans were perfectly cooked, the whole thing fresh (you may see that a lot in this review) and bright. The same could be said for my app of red veined sorrel and salmon tartare salad (right). The delicately textured and sublimely flavored tartare was ringed by the sorrel and shaved chioggia beets with rosemary oil, shallots, and sherry. Both appetizers were light on the palate, the perfect teaser for what was to come, which is exactly what you'd want them to be.

For our pastas I went for the fettucine verde (below left) which was wonderfully textured house-made pasta with a light yet rich basil-pistachio pesto and cherry tomatoes and ricotta salata. The noodles themselves couldn't have been better. Just the right chew. w's spicy pork sugo tagliatelle was equally satisfying. Meaty, rich but not heavy, a hint of chili spice complimenting but not overpowering, with the basil flavor peeking through around the edges. Both pastas were delicious, and in not-small portions. Again, the value offered here is astounding! The only down note to this course was the suggested wine pairing with my fettucine. The menu suggested a 2007 French gamay, whose flavor totally got lost when tasted after the nutty-green pesto. Much better would have been a white of some kind....maybe a sauvignon blanc or northern Italian bianco.

When we chose our entrée, I asked Anthony what was looking good. Proving his farmer's market cred he gave me the "Dude, the salmon. I just picked up a 26 pounder at the market this morning." Done. He pan sears it and serves it with roasted mushrooms, salt roasted new potatoes, sautéed mustard greens and a saffron fumet (looking delicious at left). Talk about flavor! The salmon couldn't have been fresher, and combined with the earthiness of the mushrooms brought to mind a "surf & turf" for the farmer's market age. w went for the pan-fried rockfish that came with cumin scented carrots (one of the few things that didn't quite work. The cumin was a bit dry and raw tasting on the carrots), a broccoli pesto that was brilliantly original, and an olive and cherry gremolata. Once again the fish was cooked to that just-right doneness, tasting so fresh, moist, and clean. The broccoli pesto was a dollop of broccoli that had been mixed with the usual pesto ingredients and whose flavors really popped when we took a bite. For wine, I had an elegantly delicious 2007 Pierre Guillemont Savigny-les-Beaune, which as always proved that nobody does pinot noir like the French.

We finished with an off the menu layered chocolate dessert that had a decadently creamy palate and was topped with a slice of ripe fig from Cafiero's own back yard. Owner Adam Berger was expediting in the kitchen this night, and it was good to watch his and Cafiero's seemingly easy working relationship (and to Berger's credit, not many guys can pull off photo-Tweeting a plate of food while calling out orders!). Like I said at the top, eating this well for this kind of money seems almost too good to be true. And from the buzz in the dining room lots of other people apparently agree. Since Cafiero took over the kitchen earlier this year, he has elevated the restaurant's game and this below the radar gem is doing things as well as any kitchen in town. And for as little as you pay for your pleasure, that is reason enough to be there!
Tabla on Urbanspoon


kab said...

Hmmm…we have an anniversary coming up that needs some (cost-effective) celebrating. This might just fit the bill perfectly!

Nicole said...

I still dream of thier Squid Ink pasta & Seared Scallops.
Hubby & I have alsways had a fantastic dining experiences there!

bb said...

kab....you can't do better for less!

Nicole...I remember that dish. Luckily everything new is so good I don't miss it! BTW-if you're a scallop fan, you should try the EVOE version....perfection!

Nico said...

All right, you're not going to believe this, but I think A and I were sitting on the other side of the bar the same night you went! :)

I actually saw a plate of those padron peppers go out - wanted to order it - but couldn't find it on the menu! I ended up ordering the melt-in-your mouth squid-and-chorizo appetizer. I'm with you on the fettucine - stellar execution and for me the best dish of the evening, given the summer heat and use of seasonal ingredients, although A made me give half of it to her. :-o She couldn't resist getting the (excellent) egg yolk ravioli again, but we decided it is more of a winter dish...

We both got the rock fish but I have to say that we were underwhelmed. I should've probably gone with the salmon (or try the duck) because we thought the rock fish dish was overly salty. I agree, the fish was perfectly cooked - like silk. But I feel that something about the dish was off. The broccoli pesto was interesting but again way too salty. If anything, the carrots were the one thing that counter-balanced the rest of the dish - luckily.

Oh, and I think the Gamay was off all together. A. drank it but I couldn't. The Spanish Tempranillo on the other hand was really good value!

Overall a good night out at Tabla, even though we liked our first visit better. But I know one thing: we'll be back! You can't beat that $24 value!

bb said...

Nico...welcome to the small world that is Portland, Oregon. that is awesome you were but a few seats away!

we liked the rockfish, but we both have admiration/tolerance for salted food. Not to say you're right or we're right, it's one of those things that comes down to individual taste.
And you should try their duck confit. It is a signature dish there and always satisfies!

thesharps said...

ah, the salty factor. You know, chefs walk a fine line between listening to the salt-overloaded bitch about how unsalted a dish is, and taking flak from the salt-sensitive about how anybody who needs more salt can simply take advantage of the salt shaker that is undoubtedly sitting on the table before them. I personally am of the latter school (that is, if you need salt, add it, but don't inflict it on me unnecessarily.) There are a (very) few exceptions, based on cooking process. A few dishes require salt to be added (in moderation) to properly draw moisture from vegetables or other ingredients. That's about it. The rest of it is total bullrork. That is, the somewhat enormous over-salting of most restaurant dishes is based on the insecurity of chefs who don't want plates returned to the kitchen because they are "under-salted." This reminds me of cigarette smoke. Non-smokers can't get rid of smoke in the air, which is why most places that have any brains have banned smoking in restaurants and bars. Similarly, non-salters can't eliminate the salt that has been incorporated into most dishes. Yet, there is little to no benefit, in terms of flavor, to adding salt in advance. Instead, this is an excuse to subject everybody to an overdose of salt even though it satisfies the tastes of only a subset of diners, who really could, 99 percent of the time, simply pick up a salt shaker and achieve the same result. But those of us who would rather taste the underlying flavors of veggies, meats, etc. are unfortunately subjected to a non-optional overdose of tastelessness. Too bad. I would like braver chefs and bolder flavors that don't just rely on the simple formulae of more fat, more salt and more sugar. Call me crazy . . .

bb said...

thesharps....I would agree with part of your comment, about if you want more salt take advantage of the salt shaker. But to say that the only use of salt on food is to draw moisture from vegetables/ingredients is absurd. I'm guessing that the percentage of diners, not to mention knowledgeable cooks, who would prefer their steak without salt is near zero. To put all chefs who use salt under the banner of "insecurity" is ridiculous. I agree that it should be used in moderation, but there's a reason for the cliche that "salt is flavor". It's TRUE! Granted you can't fix an oversalted dish, but most chefs I know are fairly sure of their skills and seem to handle the issue just fine, including the Tabla chef. If a diner really has a problem with salt, they can tell the server when they're ordering.

Nico said...

Looks like I started something here. ;-) For the record, I like salt - I salt (not spice) the dishes I cook liberally and with 'confidence'. I've even been called salt 'over-tolerant' at many occasions. I also agree with bb that proper salting plays an important role in a served meal - and only a dish that has the proper contrast between different flavors, including saltiness can truly amaze me. I don't think I've ever been wowed by a dish that I had to use the salt shaker for. That being said, I thought the flavors on the rockfish were a little bit off - perhaps I shouldn't have blamed the saltiness - it was just the first thing that hit my senses when I took a few bites. For example, the squid-and-chorizo was fairly salty as well but it didn't bother me there, possibly because there was a nice acidic counteraction from the greek-style puree.

bb said...

Nico...you're nothing but a troublemaker, aren't you??! Excellent comments, too.

Nicole said...

Bruce, your my foodie blog hero! Nice response.
I'm surprised no one threw down the subject of culinary obsession…… Finishing Salts!
Salt from only the most exotic and/or obscure of shores around the globe, sending Foodies into a wine connoisseur-like frenzy.
Of course, you have the Audrey Hepburn of salt, Fleur de Sel
Maldon Smoked Salt
Hawaiian Red Clay Salt
Himalayan Sea Salt
Just to name a few.
And the most exclusive of them all, I hear the waiting list is like two yrs long,
Never Never land Dragon-fired Salt, that a magic flute played
nothing but harmonious tunes to.
Unsurpassed on, well, anything.

bb said...

Nicole...I have to say that I like my salt, white, either coarse, or kosher. Those other things just confuse the issue and seem a bit too...um, precious, don't ya think?