By Katherine Chin
For once, we're not late. In fact, we're early and wait with other restaurant patrons to be seated at Tavola in Chelsea Market. After a slight miscommunication with the hostess, we are seated by the bar, which doubles as a cocktail and barista bar. Cristhian Rodriguez, the bar director, is a gracious host.
Knowledgeable about the food and beverage menu, he and our bartender do not hesitate to recommend several items after hearing our preferences. Humorously, their recommendation often skews, instead of towards a choice, towards an "all of the above," situation, where we end up with more pasta or alcohol than we anticipated. But then, there are worse things.
The Beverages at A Tavola
It's peppery. It's olive-y. It's savory. It’s the Che Fico! Hints of grapefruit and fennel peek out like a late summer garden, with an aftertaste as smooth and lazy as a quiet Friday evening. Cristhian reveals it is evocative of an unforgettable, epynonynous foccacia in California.
Wherever its origin, it is certainly delicious, if not vaguely indescribable. My eating companion distinctly disagrees, writing, "It's not for me." Palates vary widely, however, and drinks are no exception; if you are feeling adventurous, I would recommend it.
My eating companion is not terribly impressed by the Aceto Pazzo, which he finds "unremarkable." He finds the pineapple flavor prevalent to the point of overwhelming and is unable to taste the other elements of the beverage.
He does note that he, "liked chewing on the pineapple scrub," and I personally enjoy the house-made pineapple candy, whose intense fruitiness is emphasized by a dusting of malic acid. This drink may find favor with patrons who enjoy pineapple; if you do not, there are a plethora of other delicious options.
Refreshing, and spicy, Let’s Get It Started is next. Classic flavors of honey, ginger, and lemon are given a luxurious upgrade with chamomile liquor. It is warm, elegant, and finishes cleanly. Another highly recommended drink; less ambiguous on the palate than the Che Fico!, and perfect for those transitory nights caught between summer and autumn.
My companion is remains far more knowledgeable in the field of both whiskey and bourbon, and finds the combination of Iwai 45 Japanese Whiskey, Michter's Bourbon, charred peaches, and nectarines to be particularly noteworthy.
He notes, "Acidity upfront, with a tinge of sweet caramelization from the peach sugars melded with the smokiness of the bourbon and whiskey - extremely pleasant and very little bite for how present the whiskeys are." The beverage is named From Memory, and this seems accurate – it is a distinctively memorable drink.
I imagine that if one were to pluck all the flowers out of one of Martha Stewart's infamously enormous gardens, and distilled it into an alcoholic beverage, and served it with cake, it would taste like the Fantasma Fizz. Both my companion and I find it a bit grating, perhaps because of the prominent rose flavor, but neither of us can deny its aesthetic. A blushing, fizzy pink, courtesy of housemade strawberry-tomato syrup, topped with housemade angel food cake and edible flowers, it is quite pretty. I am sure that the highly floral notes will be appreciated by many patrons.
The Frittatina di Pasta is a soft, velvety interior of bechamel, peas, and ham surrounded by a perfectly fried shell. It is tasty, but monotonous, and my companion and I agree that the flavors become somewhat muted and bland after several bites. He makes a point to write, "very hammy," which is a fair point. The ham is the standout flavor, but the filling itself is not a stand-out. The exterior breadcrumb coating, however, is an exemplary exhibit on the powers of crispy and crunchy.
A similar shell covers the Lollipop di Macaroni, which is a truffle macaroni and cheese ball served with a wooden stick of questionable usage in the middle. Thankfully, the truffle flavor is neither artificial nor overpowering; instead, it gently coaxes out the natural mushroom notes of the cheese.
The cheese sauce itself is creamy but not unctuous, and it is clear that the macaroni noodles themselves are meant to be recognized as a co-star rather than a canvas. Earthy, warm, and immensely comforting, I could easily consume several of these. My companion, too, notes, "I want another immediately." (Alas, we've barely begun.)
For the Candele Spezzate con Ragù Napoletano, large, "candle" shaped noodles are the aesthetic highlight. They are draped with a generous ladle of Neapolitan spare rib ragù, which magically finds its way into the log-like caverns of the candele.
The ragù is extremely savory, perhaps toeing the line of salty, and the rich flavor occasionally risks becoming overwhelming. As my eating companion states, "the short rib is very present in the sauce, almost like a chili." The candele, however, is perfectly al dente and is quite sturdy enough to hold up to the decadent ragù.
The next dish might just be the most beautiful plate of penne I've ever seen. In the Penne Mezzani Lisce alla Nerano, the typically humble pasta is barely recognizable, draped in gossamer sheets of creamy white and verdant green. Topping it is a crown of gently fried zucchini, its char lending a subtle smoke and earthiness to the almost floral quality of the basil oil.
It is exquisite, and made even more so with a pinch of flaky sea salt and a squeeze of fresh lemon, bringing out the bracing freshness of the mint, the satisfying bite of the penne, and the umami of the Parmigiano. My companion's notes: "Creamy...like someone milked a cow dry. Love the smokiness of the zucchini char." A fine description for a must try dish.
The bartender hears me bemoaning my struggle (the penne or the gemelli?) and surprises us with both. What a gem. Someone give this man an MVP award, because even though I am already partial to a pesto pasta, the Gemelli and Massimo’s Pesto blows my mind. We are both hugely impressed, with my companion noting the pleasant aromatics of the dish, the "savory and smooth mouthfeel, excellent semi-firm texture" of the pasta, and "color like The Incredible Hulk." The gemelli is not only adorable, but extremely adept at capturing as much sauce as possible in its elegant, twisted curves.
Cooked perfectly al dente, with a bite that doesn't become dreary, it offers substance and mouthfeel to complement the pesto. The pesto, by the way, is marvelous. The olive oil is peppery, the Parmigiano is sharp and savory, the basil is sweet and fragrant, and the mint provides the refreshing contrast preventing the entire coalescence from becoming too one-sided. Pro-tip: I added lemon to this, too.
Despite being almost uncomfortably full, I am slightly dazzled at the sight of the Pastamisù. It is a typical "tiramisu in a cup" situation until you reach the top. There, it has been bestowed with large, fractured crystals of baked pasta sheets. These are actually quite tasty, and are a delightfully crunchy addition to the otherwise softly textured dessert. The rest of the tiramisu is expectedly indulgent, with the well-balanced espresso providing both bitter and brightness to the creamy mascarpone.
My eating companion describes the Millefoglie as reminiscent of the palmiers he used to eat at his grandmother's house. This is an intriguing but accurate assessment of the flaky pastry layers, which are buttery and shatter satisfyingly. The layers of pastry are separated by alternating layers of pastry cream, perfectly fluffy and faintly sweet. A lovely study in contrast to conclude a similarly distinctive meal.
A Tavola boasts several bragging rights. Prime location, a variety of seating options, knowledgeable and friendly staff, and a versatile and surprisingly far-reaching food and beverage menu. I have no issues recommending this restaurant to anyone who does not have a gluten allergy. The drinks are fun and distinguished, the pastas are marvelous, and the hospitality truly enhanced our experience.
Three Best Bites
- The spicy warmth of Let's Get It Started.
- The subtle and smoky penne mezzani with basil and mint oil.
- The far less subtle, yet somehow simultaneously refreshing, gemelli pesto.
Two separate bathrooms, both gender neutral, stocked with all the expected toiletries. A New York miracle.
Want to read more of our latest reviews? Check out the review of Ras Plant Based - where you can find Ethiopian southern fusion in Crown Heights.
Comments / 0