Italian flavours — straight from Arizona

Karl Wells
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Phillipine chef brings authentic style to Tavola, via the U.S.

Tavola
178 Water St.
Ph. 754-1678

I’ve had lunch a few times at Tavola (Italian for “table”) on Water Street. Tavola is located in what was the Pepper Mill, next to Erin’s Pub.

It’s widely known that musician Bob Hallett of Great Big Sea is one of the owners of Tavola.

The chef is a young woman named Rica Angelis, who hails from the Philippines.

Angelis was working in the United States (Arizona) at an Italian restaurant and decided she needed a change of scene. After signing on with a jobs agency in Toronto, Angelis found herself in St. John’s. She’s been cooking professionally for six years.

Her cooking philosophy is to use and respect classic techniques, while incorporating into her repertoire the best modern ideas from the revolutionary developments in today’s culinary world.

Her mantra, “fresh is best,” is a sensible approach, I think.

They play enjoyable recorded music at Tavola, at a perfect sound level for dining. The last time I was there I soaked up some fine jazz violin.

The style was reminiscent of the great Stéphane Grappelli. At the same time, I took in the rebooted appearance of the restaurant.

 

Hardwood

The dining space is anchored by light hardwood flooring and a dark wooden main support post at the centre of the room.

Anyone who has visited the restaurant in the past will know the post I’m talking about. It’s the first thing you notice walking into the room.

A counter bar at the back of the room conceals a kitchen beyond. A red wall behind the bar contains racks for wine and shelving for spirits.

Stemware is hung upside down above the bar.

Tall black leather chairs cosy up against the bar while black leather chairs and white tablecloths dominate the room’s remaining floor space.

Orange pendant lamps hang above the tables.

One wall is mirrored, creating the effect of a larger room, while a brightly coloured opposing wall features a handsome painting of dories anchored along a row house lined quayside.

Other framings feature chalkboards written up with menu items, and one that bears a cheeky quote from novelist Jonathan Lethem: “What exactly is post modernism, except modernism without the anxiety?”

 

Soup

Tavola’s pleasant interior, music track and seafood soup put me in an anxiety-free zone.

Mediterranean style seafood stews and soups have a way of triggering images in my head of sun-kissed landscapes, deep blue water and pale blue sky.

Maybe it’s the taste of sunshine in the soup’s ingredients — saffron, tomatoes, citrus, sweet red pepper and cayenne — that does it.

In addition to the spicy base, Tavola’s soup that day featured blue mussels, shrimp and a few bits of white fish.

On another visit I tried Tavola’s local Newfoundland mussels. These were delicious as well.

I liked the fact that they had been steamed with fresh sliced fennel as well as tomato and white wine.

A sprinkling of fresh chives gave the mussels a hint of onion flavour. I noted that four of the mussels had not opened.

I suspect that Angelis did not let them cook quite long enough. (Unopened mussels seem to be showing up frequently in a number of local restaurants I’ve visited this fall.)

Closed mussels should never be served or consumed.

The pear and arugula salad was a treat. The salad was a beautifully balanced blend of arugula (also called rocket), softened caramelized pear, house made ricotta cheese, walnuts spiced with a dash of cinnamon and a surprisingly effective blueberry vinaigrette.

It featured a wide range of textures: from the light crispy bite of arugula to the harder crunch of walnuts that contrasted nicely with melt-away tender ricotta.

 

Arancini

A couple of St. John’s restaurants now serve the risotto croquettes created in Italy called Arancini. (Think of croquette potato made with sticky rice.)

Chef Angelis serves them with tomato concassé spiced up with fresh herbs and vinaigrette.

Cooked risotto, with its trademark texture and flavour, is formed into golf ball sized spheres, breaded and deep fried.

This carbohydrate laden manna is then served atop the tomato relish. It provides a filling and satisfying dining experience.

Having established that Rica Angelis could make risotto, I decided on another day to try Tavola’s risotto of the day. It was perfect.

That day’s version was made with arborio rice, cheese, squash and green peas, as well as a rosette of pancetta on top for decoration, extra protein and cured pork flavour.

It was über creamy and rich. Save it for an especially cold fall or winter day when you need something that will fill your belly to its limits and keep you going for a long time.

Another of my favourite dishes — and an obvious sign that Angelis has, indeed, had experience working in an Italian restaurant — was the pasta of the day.

It was pappardelle (ribbon) pasta tossed with morsels of chicken, sun-dried tomato, fresh kale and parmesan.

This, with a few sips of the Cigar Box Malbec wine I’d ordered, was divine eating.

 

Panini

Tavola has a sandwich worthy of mention.

It’s the chicken panini. Between slices of toasted, warm panini you will find softened goat’s milk brie, tender white chicken meat and sliced tomato.

Tuck into one of these (washed down with crisp lager) and lunchtime becomes rather special.

A couple of interesting desserts rounded out my meals at Tavola. See xxx, page F2

One was a chocolate board — a too cute take on a cheese or charcuterie board.

It featured caramel nut brittle coated with milk chocolate (sprinkled with sea salt,) a slice of dark chocolate embedded with nuts (sprinkled with sea salt) and a small disc of chocolate mousse.

Of these I found the dark chocolate to be the most impressive in terms of quality of chocolate, flavour and smoothness. So much so that I wanted more of it.

Finally, there were Italian doughnuts with fruit. Five round doughnuts dusted with powdered sugar were served with rum soaked strawberries and peaches, a large dollop of cream and strawberry preserves. The doughnuts tasted as though they’d just come out of the cooker, beautifully tender and moist. I received great satisfaction from dipping the pastries into the cream and fruit preserves and munching on them. I saved the rum soaked fruit till last.

Capping the meal with the flavour of good rum in my mouth seemed most appropriate.

 

Rating:

* * *   

Price:

Lunch for two with wine and gratuity: $110.00 (approx.)

 

Sound level:

Moderate

 

* Fair  * * Good  * * * Excellent  * * * * Exceptional

 

For regular updates on “One Chef One Critic,” my Telegram Dining Out column and the latest developments on the local culinary scene please follow me on Twitter @karl_wells.

 

Karl Wells is an accredited personal chef and recipient of awards from the national body of the Canadian Culinary Federation and the Restaurant Association of Newfoundland and Labrador. He is also a restaurant panellist with enRoute Magazine. Contact him through his website, www.karlwells.com.

Organizations: Great Big Sea, Canadian Culinary Federation, Restaurant Association of Newfoundland and Labrador

Geographic location: Arizona, United States, Toronto Newfoundland Italy

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