THE DINING REPORT- TABLA Delightful Dinner Served in Forced Isolation

IMG_0136.JPGNot counting these reviews, which usually take me FOREVER, mostly because of my own bullheaded notion that if I just keep writing and writing, someone will eventually pay me by the word, the hardest thing for me about “the management” of Restaurant Roulette is making the reservations. Depending on how popular the restaurant is, or how “hot” it currently is, I always try to make sure I’ve made a reservation at least 10 days in advance, sometimes more. I have to use my “judgement,” though, to decide how many places I should make the reservation for, especially at a time when almost no one has RSVPed. I have a couple of people who, the minute they see a restaurant they really want to go to is on the upcoming roster, RSVP, and that’s great, because I always know I will have at least a couple people for these dinners. Aside from this, it’s all one big guessing game. During the mid-portion of last year, a table for 10 or 12 was usually pretty easy to fill, but towards the end of this year that dropped off again (WHERE did you guys go to???) and now it’s all a big crap shoot.

I always try to listen to clues at the dinners, people saying “I’ll probably do _________, or there’s no way I’d miss _________ . From what I had heard earlier, I thought I would probably manage 10-12 for Tabla, as many people mentioned they might go to this one at dinners we’ve recently had. So I guessed at 12, sort of a midrange number that easily goes up or down a couple of people. Tabla said they had a private room for larger parties that held up to 14 and would place us there, and I thought that sounded good, as often when we are in the middle of crowded restaurants we can’t hear each other without shouting, or we get a bit too boisterous and get shameful stares.

This dinner I was off by quite a few people, there were only seven of us, but this might have been due to people having nice dinners out with their sweethearts the day before. As I always do when the reservation goes down by more than one person, I did call the restaurant and change the reservation to seven the day before. IMG_0138.JPGTabla left us in the private room though, and since they aren’t really that big a place, this might have been the only table they had that would hold seven without stealing numerous two and four tops. I mention this because at least a couple of people were disappointed when Tabla didn’t move our smaller congregation back out into the general dining population, but it was really my fault, for originally thinking we would be a larger group and would need a bigger area. There probably wasn’t much Tabla could do to accommodate us at 7:00 on a Friday night when all the other tables were reserved or being used. And I really didn’t think the private room was bad compared to that awful subway station that serves as Pok Pok’s upstairs dining area, this room was classy, and for once, everyone could hear everyone else’s radical and dangerous political rabble-rousing, and everything else we were talking about during this dinner (we were a group of very like minds.)That being said, Tabla has an AWFUL waiting area, a postage square by the door where if people do not sit down in the three or four chairs that are provided, everything gets blocked, the doorway, the phone, the reservation desk. And block it the seven of us did (although I did actually try to hide out in one of the chairs.) Most of us were early this night, which didn’t help the door situation, especially because our awaited table did not empty at its appointed time. After having eaten at Tabla though, I no longer find this surprising in the least, with their fixed price three part dinner centered menu, eating here can take a really long time.Our group was there over three hours, but for once, this was not due to any ineptitude on the restaurant’s part, it was just quite a bit of food being served in waves.

That being said, during our wait and door blockage, Tabla didn’t exactly treat us like kings. In the beginning a couple of drinks were offered, but after that, I felt like we were a nuisance in the “waiting area.” We really could not help blocking everything for many minutes, as the people at our table continued to linger on and on, but pretty tattoo boy at the door seemed like he might have preferred if we just went away. Of course, he looked barely out of high school, so maybe he just had not learned to appreciate the wit and wisdom of us older generations. IMG_0137.JPGWhatever the case, I was really really happy when our table was finally ready and we could move, even if it was into our quarantined private cubicle (actually a tasteful wine room with an attractive wooden table and chairs, but it was a tad boring and muted, not like the much more brightly painted and funky main dining area.)

Our group, minus a couple of bodies and adding a new one, was the same group we had two weeks earlier at Lovely Hula Hands. On this evening our new arrival was Lee, who fit in with the group flawlessly, both with her desire to visit interesting restaurants, and the fact that she had lived many of the places Pat and Regis, also in attendance, had lived over the years, including Boston and Florida, where Lee had recently fled from (and who could blame her for that.) She also currently lives just a few blocks north of the restaurant, as does our good friend Brian, so we all were just the proverbial peas in the pod.

The room we were sitting in, being the wine room, actually contained many bottles of wine on the walls, (who’d a thought?) so the whole dinner was a bit like eating at the local wine bar. I have to remember, if I ever visit Tabla again with a large group and am directed to the private dining area, bring a corkscrew!!! I wonder if anyone has ever tried this? IMG_0143.JPGGet a bottle going and hide it under the table whenever the staff enters. Actually, I suppose the really crafty thing to do would be to scope out a row of something good, order a bottle, (as long as you remembered that corkscrew,) and then after that just have unlimited pours, disguising the empties on the shelf perhaps. Hmm, I wonder if the room is under surveillance? Okay, hopefully you all know I am kidding here (especially since I avoid red wine like the plague because of the doily that masquerades as my esophagus, and I prefer my white wine chilled.) Please remember, this is my third review in three weeks, so I’m running out of interesting material here. (What do you mean, that happened about 14 months ago?)

I’m not sure how often it changes, but it seems like currently the area of the Mediterranean Tabla’s menu is highlighting is Tuscany, so consequently almost everyone chose wine as their pre and during dinner refreshment. Always striving to be different, (except for all those times I work so hard to blend in,) I decided on a cocktail instead, that saving a few complaints if the wine pours were small. IMG_0135.JPGOn this evening I had a Eleanor Rigby, made with Tabla’s house infused clove vodka (that sound like lots of work,) lime, and soda, served on the rocks. The clove vodka was a bit like eating a pomander, and while I enjoyed the drink, the clove flavor was probably intense enough to wipe out any toothache pain I might be in danger of having for the next month or two (Do people still use clove oil as a toothache medicine? I remember one time during the 80s gulping it when one my nerves in a bad tooth was dying. Not that effective, I can tell you that.) The drink was unusual and good though.

The interesting thing about the menu at Tabla is that it is divided into three sections, beginning/middle/entree, and that for $24 you can have a three course dinner by selecting one item from each of the three columns. Not a bad deal, as most of the entrees are priced in the low to mid 20s, and some pastas (middle) ran about $12, and many of the salads also hovered in the $10 range (why do salads have to be so dad gummed ((an appetite inspiring analogy)) expensive these days? IMG_0140.JPGI have as yet to see any containing gold leaf.) Although still a good deal, however, one of the beginnings and two of the entrees had supplemental dollar figures after them, and you had to add these on to the fixed price total. Still, paying $25 for just a steak, or paying $31 for a steak, pasta, and expensive salad seemed like a no brainer.

In the interim Tabla brought us by a free complimentary tapa, each of us getting a mini-baquette little slice of toasted bread with something delicious slathered on top of it (oil, garlic, herbs and cheese perhaps.) I really do appreciate anything these restaurants give you for free, but as it was only about 1 – 1 1/2 bites each, I would really prefer it if places like this would just give you a hearty plate of bread, rather than having to turn around and pay $2 for a plate of Pearl Bakery bread (thank you, Pat.) I can’t handle Italian food without bread being provided. Load on those carbs!!!IMG_0141.JPG

Everyone obviously felt this way, as we all chose the fixed price route, and all seemed to go in much the same direction. For their starter, Lee and Glenda both decided on the beautiful Ahi Carpaccio, a thin steak of raw tuna served with arugula, lemon, and sea salt. Very pretty. Adele, one of our gourmand queens, gave the Sweetbreads a whirl, a three dollar supplement on the fixed price deal. These were prepared with Oregon mushrooms and applewood smoked bacon, and were quite attractive, considering their substance, The rest of us, just not in the mood for raw fish or pancreases, decided on plain old boring, but tasty, salads. Pat and Regis went for the Mixed Organic Greens (from Sauvie’s island, hopefully the clothed section,) toasted pumpkin seeds, grana padano, and sherry vinegar. Brian and I were on the same wavelength, so both ordered the Radicchio Salad, this particular version having arugula, endive, even radicchio, blue cheese poppy seed dressing, honey, humbolt fog, and comice pear. I’m assuming the humbolt fog was that big nasty piece of brie perched on the plate, which I totally struggled to eat, not being a brie fan, especially one this ripe. IMG_0142.JPGBrian loves brie though, so really appreciated the extra wedge of cheese. The salad was quite good, I must say, but still not as good as that gigantic thing at Toro Bravo, where the radicchio is specially treated to remove much of the bitterness before the salad is made. That said, everyone seemed quite happy with their first courses, fish, organs, or weeds.

Something weird happened with the pasta selection, as everyone but one person decided on the same thing, the Tajarin, described on the menu as thin house made pasta with truffle butter and grana padano (obviously a favorite cheese at this establishment, as it was all over the menu.) Although it’s not something I’m too offended by, my modest pasta portion was a tiny bit on the dry side, perhaps a mixing error, but the flavor of the truffle butter and a wonderful but very mild garlic overtone made it a simple but pleasing dish. Why can’t I ever find truffle butter at Winco though? I always look for it next to the Land O’ Lakes products. Although a bit scary looking, as all squid ink dishes seem to be, everyone was envious of Lee’s Squid Ink Spaghetti, the dark grayish colored noodles surrounded by clams, mussels and dungeness crab. Lee commented that the whole thing was a delicious collaboration, with the pasta, the shell fish, and its sherry and Calabrian chili broth.

IMG_0145.JPGMore like minds were displayed when it came to the entrees. For one thing, Tabla only had five choices, so I suppose it wasn’t totally exceptional, but everyone sitting next to each other seemed to want the same thing, like there was a food influencing vibe in different sectors of the room (Brian, our “man of difference” was “entree vibeless”, although he and I had been in sync with our first two courses.)

IMG_0153.JPGIt turns out Brian is a Clam Man (sorry Brian, your secret is out,) and had been planning on ordering the Washington Razor Clam Chowder since before he even got to the restaurant, something he had spied during an on-line menu search. (Another item that was a $5 supplement on the fixed price menu.) This was definitely one of the most unusual dishes I have seen lately, kind of a combination of fried razor clams with a soup underneath (the menu only describes it as “corn meal crusted razor clams with applewood smoked bacon”) but Brian said there was/were all kinds of additional seafood underneath in the liquid portion, and that it was delicious.

All three women on the east side of the table selected the Duck Confit, a lovely to look at presentation that came with chive whipped potatoes, braised greens, and a port poached orange. All three enjoyed it totally, Adele verbally voicing her enthusiasm with almost every bite (and you can bet as a French cooking expert, Adele has probably been quite friendly over the years with this particular fowl.) As per usual, I noticed Glenda left her potatoes behind. She’s such a starch stickler.IMG_0152.JPG

The other three of us, sitting side by side, all decided the beef sounded best (even me, can you imagine?) This particular beef, a $6 supplement, was a New York Steak herb wrapped, cast iron seared, with new potatoes and pecorino merigo (actually, a few tiny slivers of cheese placed on top that refused to dissolve.) The waitress made an extra effort feeling Regis out as to exactly how he wanted his steak prepared, and was quite sincere after it arrived asking if the preparation was to his liking. Of the three quality steak cuts I have had over the last few months, this was certainly closest to how I like my steak done, but as New Yorks are denser than ribeyes, I really think it’s easier not to overcook them. They were kind of an odd shape for New Yorks though, sort of roundish, where most of the New Yorks I’ve had in the past were long and narrow. Maybe that’s because I usually have New York strips, and this was a slightly different cut. Regis did find his a bit fatty though, and had a pile of discarded meat on his plate when he was finished.

As were all the dishes at Tabla, this was a pretty presentation, the meat beautifully seared and attractively placed alongside the potatoes and steamed broccoli and cauliflower. To be honest, however, I found the meat seasoning a little too simple, mostly just some rosemary placed on top. A similar plain presentation to this has actually worked pretty well with the last two ribeyes I have had at recent dinners, but that’s because rib meat is some of the most flavorful of beef. I think I’ve become spoiled lately with the intense flavor of fattier cuts of steak, so the New York, which always has a more muted flavor to begin with, really could have used a bit more flavor-intensifier of some sort. I asked Pat what she thought, and her comment was that it seemed to her that many Portland restaurants seemed to exercise undue restraint when it comes to salting food, and that the beef was good but seemed to be lacking from a hearty dose of salt and pepper. IMG_0150.JPGI am someone you will never see adding extra salt to her food in a restaurant (especially since so few of Portland’s better restaurants seem to want to give it to you,) but after she mentioned it, I agreed that the steak really needed more salt. Beef is really something that needs adequate salt to accentuate the flavor, best of all, kosher salt. I’m not complaining too much, the meat was fine, but just not over the top delicious like many of the beef cuts I have had over the last year at places like Toro Bravo, Autentica, Lovely Hula Hands, or the Country Cat.

It’s pretty hard to believe (except from me, of course,) but even after all these courses, and all this food, mostly completely consumed, the majority of us still wanted dessert. Two treats in particular struck people’s fancy. Once I saw it, as it was incredibly beautiful and luscious looking, I was a bit sad I did not select the chocolate tart with chocolate whipped cream (I had been scrutinizing it earlier.) IMG_0156.JPGThe large sized individual tarts had intensely chocolate everything, chocolate shells, dark chocolate filling, the aforementioned chocolate whipped cream topping, and a cocoa dusting over everything. It’s hard to imagine a more picturesque dessert, and Pat and Brian agreed, it was wonderful, and they both ate every bite (and it was quite a healthy serving.)

The other three of us decided to check out the Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Maple Frosting. At first I hesitated, as I really don’t like maple anything, but when the cakes arrived (they were individual round cakes about about 5″ in diameter, freshly heated) my fears were lessened, as the frosting was only about a two inch dollop on the very center, so I figured if I didn’t like it, I could just scrape it off. (Like I’ve ever scraped frosting off of anything.) Everyone seemed a bit taken back by the presentation of the naked cake with blob of frosting in the center, but once I tasted mine, I got so excited I forgot to take a close-up shot of anyone’s (although you can see an over-the-shoulder shot of Regis’ cake right next to his additional gelato, he was really in a gung ho mood on this evening.) I must say, this is really one of the best desserts I remember having in the last year or so of RR dinners, it was so unusual, not to mention good. Although most carrot cake is dark, moist and heavy, as most people seem to prefer it that way, this was actually a bit drier and almost muffin like. The flavor was incredible though, rather gingerbreadish, and absolutely bursting with large walnut pieces (there are very few things I don’t like when they are bursting with large walnut pieces.) The frosting was good too. with hardly a hint of maple. This dessert was so wonderful, I have thought of it several times each day since the dinner, sad but true. I wonder, does Tabla do dessert orders to go. PLLLEEEAAASSSSSEEEE!!!!

IMG_0155.JPGAlthough there was a miniscule bit of confusion here and there, by and large the service was very good all the way through, and the waitress was quite competent and pleasant from beginning to end. I found it interesting (in a distressing way,) that Tabla is the only restaurant RR has experienced so far that adds 20% gratuity on for groups of six or more. Since everything went pretty well once we actually made it to the table, no one was complaining, but I still wonder why Tabla finds it essential to add on this extra 2%.

As I mentioned earlier, this was an incredibly long dinner, probably the longest RR dinner yet at 3.5+ hours , but this wasn’t due to any deficiency with the service or food delivery at Tabla. It really had more to do with the pre-dinner drinks, and the three courses, and the dessert on top of that, and much fervent political discussion filling every nook and crany. The servers must have thought we were some sort of political activist group, as each time they entered the room we were in the middle of chatting up one or two timely topics from the news or public radio, or even actual personal experience. Although we had small differences here and there, we were mostly of one like mind, which I think has much to do with the political leanings of our fair city, and why people flock to our dear Portlandia (as is often the case, I was the freak, the only Portland native.) I so appreciate the cosmopolitan nature of our little group though, and would not trade it for a group of millionaires always offering to comp all my meals (at least I don’t think I would. Hmmm, maybe I should give this more thought before I make any firm statements that might haunt me later.)