Review: Tabla Mediterranean Bistro

Tabla Interior

Tabla Interior. Photo by Ryan Ribary

[Updated 10.12. - new prices and various other updates]

Since I reviewed Tabla in 2006, it has been through a few transitions. Chef Anthony Cafiero has left, and though the menu seems slightly less complex, the restaurant is still quite good, drawing regular crowds of happy diners.

Tabla may feel like a local, neighborhood restaurant, but it strives to be something more. Located on the NE corner of Davis and NE 28th, it has plenty of windows for a bright airy feel. The space is long and thin, a full bar taking up a good part of the north side, and a large open kitchen in the back. For the spectator among us, there is a chef’s counter that puts you in the center of the action. Down a hallway, separate from the rest of the dining room, is a private party space that holds up to about fourteen people. Additional tables stretch down the Davis street sidewalk. The atmosphere of the entire restaurant is very comfortable and relaxed, though the noise level can get fairly high on busy nights.

Octopus Chorizo Pinxto

Octopus Chorizo Pinxto

The wine glasses and flatware are of better-than-average quality, showing Tabla is serious about your experience. Most importantly, you are made to feel welcome the moment you walk through the door. Unfortunately, the total service experience doesn’t always stand up to the greeting. On some visits, service has been excellent, on others, the staff has obviously been overwhelmed. If I have to wait fifteen minutes to get my order taken, it’s too long, and if you haven’t put a drink in my hand during this time, you are losing sales. To be fair, this only happens when they have a packed house.

A few things set Tabla apart from mainstream Portland restaurants. First, they have a $28.00 three course dinner. If you go with this choice, you’ll be choosing one item from each column of the menu: an appetizer, one half pasta portion, and one full entrée. This is a great introduction to the restaurant, and the portions are easily large enough to satisfy. A few of the more expensive choices have a slight surcharge of a couple of dollars. Of course you can ignore these prix-fixe options, and order as you normally would. When I note pricing, remember you can get items as part of the fixed rate, or individual small and large portions.

Tabla has a good selection of wine at good prices, all served at the proper temperature. 12 by-the-glass pours are available; corkage is $20. Six house cocktails lean towards simpler times, instead of blasting with multiple ingredients.  Occidental Brewing and Cloudy Summer Kolsch are available on draft, along with two more selections by the bottle, Ninkasi Brewing Radiant Ale and Nectar Ale’s Red Nectar Amber Ale.

While older menus focused on somewhat pedestrian appetizers, over the last few years the bar has been raised. A sherry and mushroom pâté was of a lighter style than you might expect, still nice and earthy, but better for summer. It was paired with a light Spanish sherry, the combination a perfect antidote for our recent hot weather. I also enjoyed a chilled cucumber soup, finely pureed with mint, piment d’Espelette (a very finely ground red pepper from the Basque region), and olive oil, served with a muscadet which cut through the slight astringency of the soup. I have to say, this wasn’t my favorite soup of all time, but it was very interesting, and I totally appreciated the thought that went into it.

Salmon Tartar with Chioggia Beets

Salmon Tartar with Chioggia Beets

The red-veined sorrel and salmon tartare salad with shaved chioggia beets, rosemary oil, shallots and sherry was quite impressive, especially when I kept some of the elements separate. Eaten together, I think the somewhat mild chioggia beets still overwhelm the other components – chioggia is an early 1800 variety of beet with concentric rings of red and white inside. The salmon tartar was light and delicate, little pine nuts giving a slight crunch, and perched atop, an interesting light wafer with a brushing of rosemary oil. The ring of sorrel salad around the outside was a gentle compliment to the rest of the dish .

A better than the average green salad, “baby lettuce with anchovy and egg dressing, spiced pepitas, grilled garlic whips and shaved Parmigiano Reggiano” tasted exactly like you would expect from the description. It was like a modernized Caesar, reconstructed (note I didn’t say deconstructed) for modern palates, everything balanced.

Pasta e Fagioli

Pasta e Fagioli

The second course is a choice of pastas. Five are available to pick from, all homemade, and all of extraordinary quality – among the best in Portland. My favorite pastas are always the simple ones, and at Tabla this is in the form of the tajarin (ti-ya-reen), just like I’ve had in Piedmont – thin house-made pasta, truffle butter and grana Padano cheese. Give me a big plate of this, and closer to God I’ll be. The pasta is perfectly made, almost elegant, giving ever so slightly to the tooth, the truffle butter and cheese setting off a wave of aroma that washes over your palate. I’ve had similar dishes elsewhere, and have made it many times myself, but I’ve never had it like this in Portland. Every time a server walked past with a dish of this pasta, every head turned to catch the truffle scent. This is a must for at least one in your party

The Tabla ravioli is a similar sensory experience. A ring of chard and ricotta is layered atop a thin sheet of house-made pasta. An egg is nestled within the ring, and the pasta shell applied to the top. After a quick cooking, it is brushed with poppy-seed butter and cheese. The overall effect was of a silk purse on the tongue, the egg flavor throughout, unexpectedly bursting as you bite into it like warm velvet river.

Fettucini Verde - Basil Pistachio Pesto

Fettucini Verde – Basil Pistachio Pesto

The green fettuccini adds an unexpected element by using pistachio in a lighter than expected sauce. The cherry tomatoes are bright little bursts of flavor, and the milky white dry Ricotta puts it over the edge ($12/$18). Another winner is the spicy pork sugo tagliatelle. Again the pasta is perfect; house-made, with a porky sauce of tomato, basil, and grana Padano cheese. A slight spice gives a long, unexpected finish. This is a good dish, but pales in comparison to the other offerings. Let’s face it; though some pastas at Tabla are slightly better than others, they all run rings around those offered at most of the restaurants in town.

If you are doing the three-for-twenty-eight deal, your entrée will arrive next. On my first return visit, I decided on the confit (kohn-fee), which derived from a method of preserving meat, whereby it is cooked in its own fat. At Tabla, a large duck leg and thigh comes to the table with a crackly, perfect skin. The meat is moist and flavorful, and pulls easily from the bone. In an ideal counterpoint, the duck is matched with a slice of port-poached orange, and placed over a bed of light mashed potatoes whipped with chives. Alongside are braised greens, almost crispy, and so sweet they are practically a dessert. I absolutely loved them. One of the better presentations of duck I’ve had in a long time.

Other entrees are also terrific. Try the unique clams with pork belly. You’ll get a bowl of little mollusks, dressed in the minimalist attire of a broth of sweet vermouth and tomato. Within the clams you’ll find little gougère-like crispy garlic croquettes, and bits of pork belly. It’s a wonderful dish, which could only be better with the addition of some Pearl Bakery bread to sop up the last bit.

Pan-Seared Chinook Salmon

Pan-Seared Chinook Salmon

Chef Anthony also does justice to fish. Especially recommended is the coriander-crusted Oregon albacore. The sauce intrigues the senses from the moment it is placed on the table. The fish is cooked perfectly, bathed in a hailstorm of coriander, the roasted red pepper and pine nut agrodolce (an Italian version of sweet and sour sauce), accompanied by minted yogurt, and couscous will have you reaching for the bread once more. It strives for and achieves an unexpected excitement to what is often a lackluster type of dish.

Finally, the salmon. The large fillet is pan-seared and placed on a bed of roasted mushrooms, Roquefort beans, sautéed mustard greens and saffron fumet (a concentrated stock). The salmon tasted like it had been caught that morning, the produce like it was picked hours before. The skin crackles under the teeth, the interplay between the stock and other ingredients was just marvelous. This is a wonderful dish .

Overall, complaints are few. All of my issues from my last review have been corrected. The staff is friendly and knowledgeable, mostly efficient but not overly so. When queried about a specific dish, the servers know the ingredients, and can rattle off suggestions from the excellent wine list with no trouble. My biggest question is how they could turn out food of this quality and measure for such low prices. Overall, Tabla is the best it has ever been, chef Cafiero making it an exciting “new” addition to the NE side of Portland. It is an excellent choice that I will routinely recommend to friends and out-of-town guests.

Exterior

Exterior

Reservations recommended.

Tabla on Urbanspoon

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. simple diner says

    My wife and I have had wonderful meals at Tabla in the past but hadn’t been in a couple of years, until last week. I’ll keep it simple in saying that FD’s review is still spot on for the quality of food, and overly efficient service. The pappardelle with rabbit ragu is still fantastic as is the egg ravioli. Just those two dishes alone are worth a visit, but the additional dishes in our 3-course meals, particularly the risotto and tuna fritters, were equally well prepared and enjoyable. It’s nice to visit a restaurant you’ve enjoyed in the past and find it hasn’t lost a step. Hopefully Ten01 can find it’s way to Tabla’s level of quality and consistency.

  2. NYC-PDX says

    We ate at Tabla tonight and had a wonderful meal. Tried the mushroom pate as a starter — delicious, as was the rabbit ragu over papardelle. The duck confit was overly salty, but cooked perfectly and the rosemary flank steak was the most tender flank steak I’ve ever eaten. It did seem to take quite a while between courses, but when we were ordering our server immediately asked us if we’d like to have him bring the 8-year old’s pasta order out with our appetizers (bless him!) He then brought her dessert while we were eating our entrees — worked perfectly. If you have a child that can sit through a 90-minute dinner, they will treat him/her well (and only charge $4.00 for a child’s bowl of pasta). She amused herself with bites off of our plates and told us that this place had to become one of our “regular” restaurants!!

  3. Kernel says

    Tabla has been a favorite of mine for some time now. The quality of food is outstanding and the value is hard to beat in Portland. I think it is consistently the most underrated place in the city.

  4. says

    great review FD. Totally echoes my experience, and sadly now it will be even busier. I don’t know whether to praise you or curse you. I guess I’ll wait and see how long it takes to get a table next visit! Hopefully this will help Chef Cafiero get the attention he deserves from our local fishwraps. It’s as good as anything I’ve had locally, and obviously at an amazingly reasonable price.

    On another note: any chance to take the old comments off of this review? It kind of muddies the time line.

    Keep the love and information coming!

      • says

        I think you should simply archive the old post and the old comments and create a new post with the new review.

        Maybe create a new category “Archived Reviews” so your WordPress lists don’t show them in index queries (i.e. in your sidebar), but still have them saved for posterity, and so you can reference them in the new review, as it’s always helpful and interesting to have a point of reference/snapshot in time.

    • Food Dude says

      Hi sabernar, There is a farrotto with engish peas, grana padano stock, amaranth greens, fromage blanc, and currants that looks really good and I’m pretty sure is vegetarian.

      I’ll update the menu I have online this afternoon.

  5. Mostly_Running. says

    I would add that Chef Anthony is a very respectful diner. I waited on him years ago before seeing him on the line at Nostrana. He has a great presence and seems to have a humility about him when eating food that other folks make. Though I don’t know him beyond the interactions we had at the table, he and his partner were always two of my favorite people to serve. Nice to know his food is appreciated as well.

    • pascal says

      I agree! In addition of being a great chef, he and his wife are the most respectful and enthusiastic diners I know.
      I have had the luck to work some events with Anthony and his passion and ethics are impeccable. A class act and I wish him great luck and success at Tabla.

  6. says

    I appreciate your review FD. I think Tabla has some great things going for it, outside of the fact it seems very busy. The Friday before last I had a chance to be a part of a dinner in the back room and Anthony popped in just to say hi. He seems like a nice young man. When ordering I noticed on the menu there was a dish that had pork belly in it and I asked if there was any way to have it as my second dish. Out came the most wonderful pork 3-ways dish. The people at the table who could try it were quite amazed. It was a great mix of flavors, along with a perfect layered presentation. I am hoping that maybe it will make its way to the menu.
    BTW, FD do you remember the sherry that you had with the first course that you mentioned in you review? Was it the Equipo Navazos Fino #15? Thanks.

  7. says

    Tabla is still one of my favorites in town. We went just this past Saturday night and enjoyed the 3-course prix fixe with wine pairings. I absolutely loved the fettucini verde and the padrone peppers with a lemon mousse that was so light and melty it tasted like whipped butter. I would go back this week just for those dishes. My fiance had the spicy pork sugo tagliatelle and thought it was delicious, though we both missed the rabbit ragu pappardelle that used to be a menu staple.

  8. Prone to Hyperbole says

    Man, you nailed it, FD! What a fantastic and professional (and genuinely USEFUL) review!
    I, too, was there with my partner Saturday night. Sat at the chef’s bar. Anthony just “fed us”. We ended up sampling nearly everything on the current menu. The fettucini verde, as well as padrone peppers, tomatoes, and lemon mousse that LadyConcierge mentioned were among my faves too. The salmon was surreal! I do agree that the mint cuke cold soup wasn’t too perfect (for my palate), but it was refreshing (if tannic), and a nice in-between-er before more fabulous savory food. The octopus was my boyfriend’s fave of the night.

    The wine selection is impeccable. We enjoyed some pairing suggestions, as well as a bottle of Txakoli, served by Chef Cafiero himself, out of perrone.

    As for comments above mine mentioning Anthony and his lovely wife, Kathleen, and their graciousness, local-supportiveness, and overall ethical / good people ways… you said it! I’ve never met more Grade A people in my life. Period.

    Adam was / is a very smart man it seems. Anthony and the current staff have put Tabla at the top of serious dining destinations in the NW.

  9. Prone to Hyperbole says

    Oh, and the pasta fagiole (sp?) with brushed bowl was mind-altering and soul satisfying. And, oh my, it did look a little fancy-pants for PDX ;-P
    Bobby Flay meets Picasso

    Kidding, Anthony! Don’t kill me! :-)

  10. bottlerunner says

    dear food dude, this review was one of the most genuine i have read in this town in a very long time, and i couldn’t agree with you more.
    thank you.

    dear prone- hilarious.

  11. wine&dine says

    Excellent review Food Dude

    It seems we can have quality ingredients at an affordable price. Well done Chef Cafiero!
    I agree with ‘wineguy’ regarding the line that will be forming outside the door. It does seem to create a buzz and make it difficult for the rest of us who prowl the streets a night looking for that nest great meal. We who have to work at it make it easier for others to ‘dine at the table’. Way to go Food Dude!

    I too had the wines paired with my meal and was quite impressed with the thoughtfulness of their selections.

  12. culinary kitten says

    re: the house ravioli – you nailed it. I’ve always struggled to put into words what happens when you take a bite. velvet river sums it up, plus extra points for the fact that it sounds kind of erotic when you put it that way!

  13. Steve Wino says

    I had been to Tabla only once before, to a winemakers’ dinner, and had a wonderful dinner. I have wanted to go back but had not until seeing all the raves. Chef was doing a dinner elsewhere but it shouldn’t have impacted the result. We had a number of interesting dishes but several way too salty. This seems to a problem with way too many restaurants and I don’t understand it. With the quality of the ingredients and the care that otherwise goes into these dishes at Tabla, why the heavy salt? I don’t know if this is an isolated instance but the fact that more than one dish suffered from this problem suggested it isn’t.

  14. Jack Yoss says

    Congrats to Anthony, Adam and the rest of the crew. Tabla is a very special place and I can not think of a more deserving restaurant. The food that they put out for the 24$ prefix would easily cost double that at most Portland restaurants and they have been doing it for years. Anthony, you are a great chef and I can not wait to stop in on my way through. Kudos to you all.

    Food dude, mouth watering, well written review.

    • JandJ says

      Hey, Jack, I don’t suppose you might consider stopping off for a couple or three years or so on your way through PDX and start up a restaurant, would you? :) You are definitely missed here, dude.

      I totally agree about Tabla. Also influenced by FD’s review, we spun by there a few weeks back and just loved it. We will definitely be back.

  15. Dave J. says

    My wife and I went this past Saturday purely because of this review–and in fact I shamelessly ordered two of the dishes Food Dude raved about: the tajarin and the salmon tartare. Both were remarkably good–the pasta was some of the best I’ve had in years. My wife had the ravioli, and could not wipe the grin off of her face. The entire experience was perfect, from start to finish. I’m grateful to FD for the review, and grateful to Tabla for being so damn good.

  16. Heidi Yorkshire says

    We sat at the counter at Tabla last night and had a terrific meal — it’s hard to choose the stand-out dishes because everything was spot-on. (We did get a taste of beef tongue with some wonderfully creamy fresh beans from Viridian Farms that was an unusual and very delicious combination.) Lovely service, too. My husband had the wine pairings suggested on the menu, and they were well chosen and generously poured. All I can say is, if I got a three-course menu of this imagination and quality for $24 in Paris (or even for 24 Euros), I’d be ecstatic.

  17. Mark says

    Had an absolutely fabulous dinner here last week. We had met Chef Cafiero and his charming mother, Kathleen, about two weeks ago. After hearing his enthusiasm for cooking with fresh and local ingredients, we knew we had to go. Everything was exceptional and we will be back.

  18. Portland Food Adventures says

    I had the good fortune to sit and chat with Anthony at Tabla yesterday. He is VERY passionate about his craft, extremely enjoyable to talk to, and more well-groomed than any chef in Portland! (He showed up to meet me in a vest and tie.)

    But the important thing is, that passion comes through in the experience at Tabla. Not only was my food exceptional, but the experience was rounded out by the staff. They all have been there for a while, know the menu, and were engaging (while very busy). Anthony’s energy is all over Tabla.

    Definitely a go-to spot.

  19. Calabrese says

    I was there with my Valentine on Sunday night. The wine pairing option is gone as Michael was let go as part of the collapse of Ten-01 and Ten-01′s cellar was absorbed into Tabla’s inventory. The food is still great. And the octopus is consistently the best in the US. And the new pastry chef is wonderful.

  20. SaltyCod says

    A recent visit to Tabla was good.
    But.
    The $28 three course dinner… Was not quite as great of a deal as it should have been. It doesn’t explicitly say what you describe in your review as a half portion of pasta and a full 3rd course entree. Our experience is that the entree might not be a full portion. (If you order the duck leg, there’s no way for them to shrink it, so you get a great deal. My partner did that and was quite happy.)
    I ordered the Seafood Stew. (btw: many of the dishes described in the review are not on the current menu). Although it was delicious, the portion was smaller than what would be called a “cup” of soup.
    Also, there was a $4 surcharge for that item.
    Now, I think it’s OK to charge a little extra above the set price for certain items.
    And I also think it’s OK to make the portion a little smaller.
    But this went too far. There was something that felt like an affront to reason to provide a truly tiny portion AND charge a surcharge.
    I recommend not doing both of those things if happy customers are desired. I mentioned it on the comment card that was provided.
    (Overall, I found the service to be quite good, and there wasn’t any part of our meal that didn’t taste great.)

    • says

      I just double-checked, and the details are exactly as stated in my review. Why did you think their were two prices on the menu items? Does it not make sense that this designates two sizes?

      Many restaurant menus change by the day. You can’t expect a review from 2009 to have the same items in 2012.

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