Monday, August 10, 2009

Turning Heads at Tabla

Special occasions seem almost preternaturally fraught with tension. Those couples in the restaurant ads smiling at each other and toasting an anniversary/birthday/promotion at work? I don't care how happy they look at that moment, but chances are that by the time the dessert comes (if they even make it that far) one of them will be in tears and the other will be fuming.

Seared fig with prosciutto.

I can't tell you how many times I've counseled friends not to bring up anything that smacks of an "issue" during that special dinner with their mates. Maybe it's because most of us don't get out that often and we feel the need to use what little time we have alone with our significant others to discuss that topic that's been nagging at us for the last several years. But take my word for it, you don't want to go there. Safe topics? The weather, the food, the waiters, funny stories and happy times you've shared. Strictly off-limits (and you know this, right?): kids, work problems and anything to do with the relationship. The rule: If you can't say something nice (at least for tonight), just have more wine.

Octopus pinxto with housemade chorizo.

We recently went out for an anniversary dinner and chose Tabla on NE 28th for the occasion. My brother had been there and given it his four (or is it five?) star seal of approval, especially recommending a seat at the chef's bar, another great distraction from bringing up those forbidden topics mentioned above. Another draw was recently-appointed chef de cuisine Anthony Cafiero, a friend of my brother's and a guy with a big commitment to fresh, local food.

We started with a cocktail, my choice being their version of a negroni called The Bicycle Thief that uses basil-infused gin, campari and a specialty vermouth called Carpano Antica. Dave had his usual martini, and as our drinks were brought out Anthony passed us an amuse bouche of a half fig from his back yard, seared and topped with a sliver of caramelized prosciutto and a splash of balsamic reduction. Talk about seasonal!

Cafiero making some magic.

Since we were there to have the $24 three-course dinner (another happy thing to talk about), we chose one item each from the list of appetizers, pastas and entrées. It went without saying that we had to have the pan-fried padron peppers with lemon mousse and cherry tomatoes, and they were fabulous, quickly seared and showered with sea salt. The octopus and chorizo pinxto, a tapa of a pink-tinged whole tentacle, was set in a pool of skordalia and curled around a skewer of the housemade sausage and a cube of olive oil bread, all drizzled with a deep orange paprika oil. Artful, yes, but also a terrific combination of flavors and textures.

Cafiero's artfulness also came through in the pasta e fagioli (top photo), Anthony's version of the classic Italian-American pasta fazool. Taking a white porcelain bowl, Cafiero painted the inside with a brilliant orange hazelnut romesco, then spooned in the fazool made with pocha beans from Viridian Farms (who also grow the pimentos de padron) and a confit of Oregon albacore and red Fresno chiles. Absolutely gorgeous and an ideal example of "eating with your eyes," I also had a hard time not using my finger to scrape out the last of the sauce that was clinging to the sides of the bowl.

The flankie.

The pasta with pork sugo was a deliciously simple version of this dish, made with local pork and heirloom tomatoes. Which brings up the wine we had with this course, a bottle of Les Tabeneaux Benoit Courault, a tiny biodynamic winery in the Anjou region of France that was recommended by Tabla's sommelier, Michael Garofola. Light in color and body but with a bold fruitiness on the nose, it was wonderful with our food and accented the rich tastes but light hand used in Cafiero's preparations.

Clams with pork belly (check the fritters).

Our entrées of rosemary marinated flank steak, served with a panzanella of cucumber and tomato and a slice of grilled polenta, and the clams with pork belly were both perfectly made, the flank seared medium rare as requested and the clams rich but brothy and not overwhelmed by the tomato sauce. The clams also came with some incredible garlic bread fritters that we can only hope will appear on the bar menu really really soon. Three words: To…die…for.

And somehow, even at the peak of the evening while he was working the line and juggling orders, Cafiero managed to teach one of the waiters to do the "shopping cart" and joke with customers. It was quite a show, one that kept us not only highly entertained but extremely well fed. And just maybe looking like that happy couple in the ad.

Details: Tabla Mediterranean Bistro, 200 NE 28th Ave. Phone 503-238-3777.


Giovanna said...

Thanks for the review and the good advice re: couples eating out--I'll keep it tucked away (though hopefully I already know that!). We are staying in for our anniversary dinner--blew our eating out $$ at Pok Pok last week (no complaints there!).

But maybe we'll have to celebrate our anniversary again a little later...

Kathleen Bauer said...

And how do I know it? Without going into the gory details, let's just say I've made that same mistake more than once. And sometimes staying in, especially if it involves your favorite food and people, is the best!

The LaVya Initiative said...

They had me at "seared fig and prosciutto!"

Kathleen Bauer said...

It was, indeed, a classy beginning to a great meal. And he was so proud that the fig was from his yard, I couldn't help but be charmed.