178 Water St.
St. John’s, NL
Ph. (709) 754-1678
I didn’t know Tavola had thrown in the tea towel on lunch. Spouse and I wandered in at 1:45 p.m. on Saturday, hungry for lunch, and received a brunch menu. These days restaurants tend to place emphasis on the br part of brunch, not the unch of brunch. It was almost two o’clock and we were leaning toward … no, no we were barricaded behind the unch column, trying to keep runny egg yoke and molasses from trickling in.
Unfortunately, it was no use. The sole unchy dishes on Tavola’s brunch menu were fish and chips and a burger. I couldn’t bear writing about another version of fish and chips or the latest scratch burger – at least not for another month. So, we let open the floodgates of br, and egg, and toutons. We did more; we embraced the br. We gave it a big br hug.
Tavola has the best name for a restaurant. In Italian it means table. A two-syllable word that sums up what Tavola is all about, a welcome table – actually, eight or nine – with food, around which, people gather for nourishment and renewal. I wonder if the yellow, guitar pick O in Tavola’s signage represents a table, and those reddish swirls the never-ending masses of people partaking and returning? I’d like to think so.
Maybe it’s the large blackboard filled with all sorts of dinner menu options – not available during Saturday’s brunch – that gives Tavola its European bistro atmosphere. Touches of colour here and there, on the walls, the lamp shades, and the green, yellow and blue chalk used for the blackboard menu help warm the room.
Our server, referring to when the restaurant was the Pepper Mill, said, “We took all the pretentiousness out of the place. Newfoundlanders don’t like pretentious.” I dare say we don’t, but we don’t have a monopoly on dislike of that which is pretentious. Most human beings dislike pretentiousness. The comment warrants examination and begs the question: What exactly was pretentious about the Pepper Mill?
Pretentiousness is an attitude: someone coming across as though he or she is more important, smarter or better than others, especially when they’re not. However, our server wasn’t referring to people – and for the record, the owner, cooks and staff at the Pepper Mill gave no hint of pretentiousness. She – our server – was referring to the physical room, to inanimate objects or décor. Can objects be pretentious? Aren’t we really talking about taste? Installing a bunch of Doric columns around a small, starter home isn’t pretentious. It’s bad taste.
The main difference between Tavola and the Pepper Mill is that the Pepper Mill used linens, i.e. tablecloths and napkins, and each place was set with an empty wine glass. It’s a style of presentation that may not be to everyone’s taste but it is about taste, not pretentiousness. Paper napkins and bare tables is the look preferred by our server, and not having linens does make things easier for staff. Linens must be kept, washed and ironed, not to mention the effect using linens has on a restaurant’s bottom line.
Bare v. covered
I like linens for aesthetic and practical reasons. They appeal to my taste and convey the impression that I’m about to experience, hopefully, something special. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not opposed to clean, bare tables and paper. It depends on the restaurant. Some restaurants would look as silly with tablecloths as that starter home with Doric columns. A good practical reason for using linens is that they cut down on noise. Sounds bounce off bare surfaces and get amplified. Think of a large restaurant full of bare tables, each one occupied and producing sounds made louder because there’s no absorbent tablecloth. It can be intolerable.
If it were possible to taste the DNA of Newfoundland, it would be salty with the distinct flavour of savoury – the pungent kind we grow here. Tavola’s fish cakes will have to do. Two came with a made-to-order taste. Just fried, obviously, but with potato that tasted freshly mashed, adequate fish and enough savoury to make an expat cry. Bolstering the Newfoundland cred of the dish was a dollop of house made mustard pickles, as yellow as a yellow dwelling in a jelly bean row.
Given the inclination lately for revising, tinkering with, and, sadly, spoiling many of our traditional dishes, I’m surprised nobody’s had a go at the touton. I’ve been bracing myself for the day when I’m served a cloudberry flavoured, multigrain, wood-grilled touton, with a cup of piping hot, spruce infused tea. Thankfully, Tavola’s were classic toutons: round, golden, fried to achieve a slightly firm exterior and tender, white interior. A pour of jet black molasses enriched them nicely.
Slow and sweet
A side of Tavola’s slow cooked, molasses sweetened baked beans had the developed flavours of beans that had been resting in their sauce for 24 or 48 hours. Beans go very well with toutons, almost as well as deep fried fish goes with chips.
Tavola’s frittata was the type that resembles an open-faced omelette, not the eggy pie kind, which looks like quiche without the crust. At first glance the ingredients, apart from the egg, appeared arranged on top of a cooked omelette, but no, they were cooked in the egg mixture. I tasted mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, spinach and dabs of softened goat cheese. It was a creamy, deliciously flavoured frittata. An accompanying mixture of cubed, roasted potato with fried onion and thinly sliced red pepper was good too.
No brunch is complete without fruit. I opted to have mine with yogurt and granola. The parfait, as it was called, arrived in a clear dish with fresh strawberries, blackberries and raspberries on top. The strawberry, honey flavoured yogurt was filled with fruit compote and nutty granola. The mixture was warm for some reason. Perhaps the granola had been heated. I didn’t mind because the warmness brought out the flavours of the fruit and granola. I think I detected a hint of allspice, no doubt meant to enhance, not detract from the overall quality of the parfait. It looked like something that could be easily duplicated at home, but I bet not. I’ll just have to go to Tavola for it, as will you reader.
* Good * * Very good * * * Excellent * * * * Exceptional
Price Brunch for two with coffee, tax and tip costs approximately $50.
Service Very friendly and efficient.
Atmosphere Invitingly warm.
Sound level Low to moderate.
Open Tuesday to Friday, dinner: 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday, brunch: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday, dinner: 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Reservations Yes and walk-ins are welcome.
Credit cards All major.
Beverages The drinks menu was curated by Tavola owner, Bob Hallett. It’s safe to assume that everything offered is to Bob’s taste. His compact wine list contains enough variety to satisfy most palates and choices remain within a reasonable price range. Glasses sell for $6 (3 oz.) and $9 (5 oz.). Bottles range from $35 to $58, with one exception, Duckhorn Merlot is priced at $120.
Best bets Parfait, frittata, fish cakes and toutons.
Gluten free options Please ask your server for details.
Wheelchair access No.