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!