Wednesday, February 13, 2008


I woke today to the repetitive buzz of a small domestic appliance. My peaceful morning quiet was broken by this odd sound, and it took me a few sleepy minutes to recognize that it was coming from the kitchen. It turned out to be the motor of an electric citrus juicer, as my mom was making me a tall glass of tangelo juice.

I often feel frustrated by the poor quality and low standards of food in restaurants here in Hawaii, but man, you can't beat the ripeness the fresh tropical fruit. Since I arrived back in the islands, I've sampled a good amount of my local food favorites--shave ice at Matsumoto's (lilikoi-guava-li hing), Furikake crusted ahi plate lunch, portuguese-sausage-eggs-and-rice, and the blueberry-cream cheese scones at Diamond Head Grill. I made it to a few trendy and classic spots around Honolulu too--lunch at Mariposa (love those popovers with guava butter, and the consomme is always an elegant touch), dinner at Vino, Formaggio's, a cocktail at Nobu in Waikiki, breakfast at Town.

All of these are good spots, and time well spent with friends and family, but my favorite meals have been those enjoyed in someone's home. My friend Leah made me fried rice one hungover morning, which, along with a couple of ibubrofen, hit the spot. She whipped up some tasty curry one night too with Japanese eggplant and tofu that was simply satisfying. I wanted to make grilled-cheese on her fiance's "snackmaster" iron, but we just never got the chance.

Back at home on Kauai, I've started to cook a bit myself again, and wanted to share a bit about the fantastic meal we made tonight for a couple of family friends. Our guests arrived with a bottle of Groth 2001 Oakville cab, and while that opened up, we poured some Cloudy Bay Sauvignon blanc that my Mom had saved from her store. They also brought (and this is really what inspired me to type these notes in the first place)a chunk of sausage from Salumi in Seattle (Mario Batali's dad's place). It was mexican mole salami, and that stuff was incredible. Nice and dry, the sausage's richness is still apparent alongside the slight chocolate and spice in the mole. SO GOOD! (I might sneak into the kitchen for a tiny piece right now--even at 11 pm). Our dinner was delicious as well--my stepdad made a coriander rubbed pork tenderloin with "calabacitas" (see recipe below), what he describes as a "poor people" dish that his mother used to make when he was a kid. The original recipe uses Velveeta cheese, but suggested jack cheese and it was great. I made a salad with local mixed greens, cilantro, oranges, and red onion dressed with olive oil/lime juice/honey/cumin/salt/pepper. That's a good simple dressing when you don't want to use vinegar. For dessert I made pineapple soaked in basil simple syrup with a curl of mango sorbet on top. Mmm...It was all very simple but just so fresh and island-style.


3-4 medium zucchini or yellow squash
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup chopped, peeled roasted green chile (or canned, drained and rinsed)
1 cup cooked corn
1/2 shredded jack cheese

1. Saute onion in olive oil until softened.
2. Add squash and garlic until cooked.
3. Add cooked corn and season with salt and pepper.
4. Sprinkle cheese over the top, turn off heat, and cover with a lid until melted.

So I’m sitting at Tabla on a cold, misty Saturday night at about nine, picking moist meat off of duck bones, and telling my friend about the vacancy sign hanging in the Mercury’s food department. At that point, I figured that it was as good of a time as any to write a review.

We jaunted down NE 28th from the Laurelhurst Theater, a little hungry after seeing a movie about a seriously disfunctional family (“Margot at the Wedding”). Walking, we talked, divulging secrets of our own ancestors, and appropriately sought a restaurant that would offer us warmth and comfort. Portland’s restaurant row isn’t too bad a place to be hungry--last weekend we hit up Noble Rot for a meal comprised of a superb (albeit pricey) roast duck surrounded by liquefied pate, and other delicious bites. On this night, we scanned the menu outside Tabla, for beckoning words like “radicchio,” “confit,” and “house-made.” They were all there, so we walked right in.

Surprisingly half-empty on a Saturday, the host gave us our choice of a table or the kitchen bar (they have two bars—the alcohol one and the food one—very nice), and chose to set up as close to fire as possible. The staff was extremely relaxed and friendly (even prompting comments out of my mouth like “this would be a great place to work”). We were offered tastes when it came to wine decisions (despite the fact that our server had a thorough knowledge of her wines, and could describe each with detail, and made decent suggestions), and the cook just handed us our dishes over the counter when she finished cooking them. Home-style.

The food was homey as well, but by this I mean homey like the way that someone can invite you to their house for dinner, and cooks you something good, that fills you up with no flash. We started with the mussels from Puget Sound (SO fresh) in a bit of broth with sausage, sautéed onions and herbs. The thing about this dish was, the flavor was SO subtle, SO mild, that it was almost flavor-less. I mean, shellfish will always provide a distinct taste, but the sausage tasted like...scrambled egg. Not bad...just unexpected? The dish could have been enhanced by salt, but we were ashamed to ask for it from the sweet cook behind the counter. The kitchen was pretty cool looking back there, like an Italian kitchen with white matte paint layered behind the knife racks and shelves of cookbooks. The aforementioned radicchio (salad) was deconstructed--two slices of whole d’anjou pear underneath a pile of the greens (can you use the term “greens” if they’re purple?) with currants, and a wedge of Humboldt fog (I love that cheese and it was a generous portion, but didn’t exactly pair with any of the other flavors there, which in a way resembled coleslaw). Finally, the duck confit. Whipped potatoes. Kale. The kale was good. Braised and slightly sweet, like southern collards. Again...salt? The duck was okay. Honestly, it was kind of a “the ingredients should speak for themselves” preparation...but these ingredients were, well...either shy or mute. That said, it was satisfying sustenance on a cold winter night with a good friend and our consoling conversation. Fortunately, she had more to say than the food, and the wine was good. A solid B. Service, A. Food, C+. One cool thing about Tabla is that they offer a $24 prix fixe menu, which is great—3 courses, your choice, with the option of wine pairings. Their sommelier also has a spot on the menu that features a rotating wine region, with four selections from that area available by the glass. This week it was Languedoc-Rousillion.

As an endnote, a server came into the kitchen as things were really slowing down, and as we started talking (about restaurant staff breaking into song), he mentioned that he was waiting on a table in their private dining room which included a freelance writer for Gourmet. I asked whether their menu was set or if they ordered off of the menu that we did. Provocatively, I found out that they ordered a la carte. I wondered if anybody ordered the breakfast sausage (in the mussels, that is).