I'd wanted to try Tabla for a while and when I saw it on the Windows of Hope list, I immediately made a reservation. The lower portion of Tabla is the Bread Bar, a mostly round room (with a round hole in the ceiling) with a casual, mid-priced menu and blaringly loud music. Off to the left is a set of stairs that leads to the more formal dining area. (There are also, surprisingly, tables UNDER the stairs. You'd think they'd be awful, but they're actually cute and romantic, especially the two-top tucked all the way under the stairs.)
We got there about half an hour early, checked in and were told that they'd try to seat us early if they could. We went to the bar and ordered one Tablatini (a martini flavored with pineapple and lemon grass) and a tamarind margarita. Both were delicious and unusual.
As we were led up the stairs, I was disappointed to realize that the noise level didn't diminish any. However, the upper room is attractive in a minimalistic way and the lighting is soft but not so soft that you can't read the menu. We were seated at a spacious table clearly meant for three. Waiting for us on each plate was a card explaining that 10% of the restaurant's proceeds would be donated to the Windows of Hope fund and a lovely golden dove pin that I promptly affixed to my lapel.
After a pause that was just a shade too long (especially since we didn't yet have menus), we were approached by a manager who said he had a party of three who were waiting to be seated. And then he very nicely asked if we would mind moving to a table for two that overlooked the Bread Bar; in return, he would give us a drink on the house. We didn't mind, especially since we'd be closer together and we figured conversation would be easier since I was finding myself leaning forward in order to hear what my husband was saying.
Just as I rose and folded my napkin, another couple was led to the table that the manager had indicated, much to the manager's surprise and chagrin. He apologized profusely, sat us back down and told us to enjoy our meal, leaving us feeling bemused.
Our waiter then came by with menus, and he promised us a basket of bread. The left hand side of the menu is ala carte, and the right hand side filled with tasting menus. The vegetable tasting menu and the New York tasting menu are available in four or five course options, and the New York tasting menu has a matching wine course. There is also a seven course menu where the chef picks all the courses based on "Today's Market Ingredients." Again we waited just a minute or two too long for our waiter to return. We asked a few questions and learned that all tasting menus must be ordered by the entire table, and that choosing the four course option meant that we could eliminate one dish of our choice, but that we both had to eliminate the same dish. So our meals had to be identical, which was a little disappointing to me. After going to consult someone else, we were also told that two of us could split a single order of the matched wines. (I might be the only one who feels this way, but four ounces of wine with every course is way too much for me. I find myself guzzling wine at the end of every course.)
So we went for the four course NY tasting menu, minus the shellfish course (described on the menu as fricasee of razor clams, squid & little neck clams with baby vegetables, smoked bacon and coriander seeds) with the matching wines, all of which were from New York state.
Amuse: a tiny teacup filled with soup. When the server gave it to us, he told us what it was, but between his accent and the noise level in the room, we couldn't hear, even after we asked him to repeat it. After tasting it, I was certain it was a pureed onion soup with a chicken base and lots of different spices (including cinnamon), but when we asked our waiter, he told us it was a vegetarian pumpkin soup. Even after tasting it again, I could not detect any pumpkin. In any case, it was delicious-- rich and thick with amazing depth of flavor. I took this opportunity to remind the waiter that we hadn't gotten our bread, and he returned with it a few minutes later. (To his credit, it was extraordinarily busy.)
Bread: Rosemary naan with a curried lentil spread. The bread was well worth the wait. It had obviously just been pulled out of the oven and was subtlely infused with rosemary. And the spread was heavenly.
First course: Hudson Valley foie gras two ways with raddichio, Concord grapes and spiced cashews arrived with a flourish. The waiter asked if we needed anything else, and we said no, and as he walked away, I realized we hadn't been served our matching wine. We managed to get his attention a few minutes later, and he poured a 1999 Hermann J. Wiemer Late Harvest Johannisberg Riesling from the Finger Lakes. I took a sip of the wine before eating and thought it was a nice wine with a refreshing spritz, but unremarkable. The food, however, was outstanding. One slice of foie gras was seared, and the other wasn't, which made for an excellent flavor and texture contrast. Interestingly enough, the grapes were green rather than Concord (and rolled in a salt and pepper crust) and the nuts were spiced walnuts rather than cashews. The plate was also drizzled in a very high quality balsamic vinegar reduction. Every mouthful offered a new and delicious taste sensation, but the best part was trying the wine again. It was like a whole different animal when paired with the foie gras, becoming much richer and deeper in flavor, with a faint hint of vanilla in the finish. This was the single greatest pairing of food and wine I've ever eaten.
Second course: Wild striped bass with mixed beans, baby bok choy and dry ginger broth. This was a generous portion of bass, pouched until just before the flaking point and served in a peppery broth with baby bok choy and fava beans. (Oddly, my husband's fish was cooked slightly more than mine, to just past the flaking point.) While the fish was obviously fresh, it lacked much depth of flavor, and the main flavor of this course was in the broth which was bright, salty and peppery rather than gingery. (I'm not actually convinced there was any ginger in the broth.) Once again, the wine (a 1998 Schneider Vineyards Chardonnay from the North Fork of LI) did not arrive until a few minutes after the food was served. This wine was definitely the weakest wine as well as the weakest pairing. You can tell from tasting it that the vintner is trying, but the pieces just aren't coming together. It starts out well enough, with a bold chardonnay flavor with hints of pear, and it ends with a spicy, slightly dry finish, but for a moment in between you taste nothing at all; there's just a watery pause, the gustatorial equivalent of the hiss between songs on a record. When paired with the bass, the wine's flaws were less evident, and the two went together companionably, even if they didn't each help the other rise to new heights.
(Third course in the five course meal would have been the previously mentioned fricasee of squid and shellfish, paired with a 2000 Dr. Konstantin Frank Dry Johannisberg Riesling from the Finger Lakes.)
Third course: Spice crusted Millbrook venison with braised cabbage, apples, pumpkin cake and pickle jus. This time, thankfully, the wine actually arrived before the food. It was a 1998 Channing Perrine "Mudd Vineyard-old vine" Cabernet Sauvignon, quite a nice, hearty red with a hint of blueberries and a long, spicy finish. The venison, though, was the star of this course, as well as the entire meal. It was very fresh, with the perfect balance of tenderness and chewiness, of clean, pure meatiness and just a touch of gamey-ness, just enough to remind you with each and every bite that this wasn't just an excellent cut of beef. Again, the sides were slightly different than advertised, since there was a potato, rather than pumpkin, pancake and there were also wonderfully sweet and tender onions. It was so delicious that between bites, as the taste in my mouth faded, I because convinced that I was exaggerating how good it had been, but when I next took a bite, it was even more scrumptious than I had remembered it. The wine was a good, if not extraordinary, match.
Fourth course: two desserts to share. 1) a slightly gooey chocolate valhrona cake served with vanilla ice cream (to be honest, it actually tasted like "neutral" ice cream-- the starter stuff that you add flavorings to) drizzled with strawberry sauce and 2) a layer of cooked (almost candied) pineapple, topped by a super thin and crispy lattice cookie (almond, maybe), topped with a cone of caramel ice cream, crowned by a tiny piece of gold leaf. There was nothing wrong with either of these desserts, but neither did they knock my socks off. I liked the second dessert slightly better than the first. The pairing for this course was a 1996 Sagpond Vineyards Christian Wolffer Cuvee Brut sparkling wine. To be honest, I've never been a fan of pairing wine with dessert. I like to have dessert wines instead of dessert, or I like to have coffee with dessert. I find that wines don't really stand up well to sugary desserts. So I wasn't surprised to find that this wine was nice alone, but I didn't like the shock of tartness between bites.
Extras: After dessert, we were brought a plate of six tiny petit fours, two per kind. The first was pineapple with marzipan, the second was described as a passionfruit jelly, but it was really guava, and the third was dark chocolate drizzled over almond slivers. All were very nice. Plus, we were given a ginger cookie and a peppermint to take home. (The cookie was spicy with a good balance of chew and crunch.)
Finally, we were offered a complimentary after dinner drink (as a way, I think, of trying to remedy the fact that we were almost moved), and we selected a 30 year port that I can't remember the name of except that it was one of the major brands and not Cockburn's.
Altogether, it was a very good experience, despite the din and some service mis-steps. The room was very loud, but I noticed the noise a lot less once the food started to arrive. Our server was very nice and generally well informed. He gracefully drew out our opinions about the various courses and wine pairings, and he seemed genuinely interested in our opinions, particularly with respect to the wine paired with the bass. I suspect that Tabla was somewhat short-handed that night and/or that more people than expected ordered the more service-intensive tasting menus, which spread the service a little too thin (but by no means unforgivably so).
In retrospect, I am surprised that the kitchen made so many substitutions to the menu without informing the front room staff. In almost every course, there were small differences between what was printed on the menu and what we were served. The pumpkin in two courses was noticeably absent (or so poorly flavored that it might as well not have been there). At one point, our waiter asked us about the bass and then said, "Gingery broth, isn't it?" which puzzled us, since the broth wasn't gingery at all. But the substitutions were well-conceived, and I'd definitely rather eat in a place that substitutes where necessary than one that blindly follows a set list of ingredients regardless of quality. I also expected the Indian influences to be more pronounced than they were, but I think that was a misconception on my part.
Final cost: a bit more than $200 after a sizeable tip.
P.S. They passed the napkin test, folding the napkin so neatly that it looked ironed and placing it where my plate had been.
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