Wednesday, March 30, 2011

An Adventure in Modernizing Portland Cuisine with Tabla's Anthony Cafiero

Confession time. I am such a skeptic of modernist cuisine, with its gelatins, foams, savory sorbets, and wonky textures, but I'm not skeptical of Anthony Cafiero's talent - so last night's PFA dinner at Tabla was truly a food adventure. The usual set-up was in play: two long, communal tables decked out in wine glasses and white linens filled the space in front of the open kitchen at Tabla, where Tony and the team were cranking out plate after plate of dishes inspired by the chef's recent trip to Spain. The food was playful, provocative, and unexpected - savory met sweet, textures danced, and there was some really, really good octopus. The menu was structured such that small plates - the palate teasers - were set out between the larger dishes, and the single bites of "Potato Air with Truffle Pearls" and "Guilde of Goat Cheese Custard, Quince, and Lucqese Olives" played well with the entrees of Sous Vide eggs with coppa, breadcrumbs, caper aioli and miner's lettuce and the Mar y Montaña (more about that later). The wines were amazing, but I was a bit too busy taking photos and chatting it up with everyone about my new job to pay attention to labels. I'm going to have to get better about that!

Anyroads, I caught up with Tony on his day off and picked his brain about the event's menu, Portland's attitudes towards innovative modernist cuisine, and his plans for the future. Mark my words, even if I'm skeptical about small bites of truffle caviar, this guy is going places. Watch out, Portland.

Ok, man. What was your favorite dish on the menu last night? Why?
My favorite dish on the menu last night has to be my favorite dish on my regular menu, the mar y moñtana: pork, octopus, chickpea, tomato and ajo blanco-braised radish and mustard root. We get the best octopus you can buy from Spain, not from Vietnam or Thailand [where most cheaper octopus comes from].  We blanch it, drop it in a pressure cooker - one of my favorite tools - and cook it for an hour. We then marinate it with oregano, cayenne, paprika and sherry vinegar and olive oil, using the vacuum sealer. The best part is the sear that it gets on our ghetto plancha, which is a rigged-up Lodge brand cast iron griddle dropped directly onto our grill burners. Nice and hot. I had sous vide endive with Roquefort milk in San Sebastian, and I thought Ajo Blanco would work just the same.  We seal the Ajo Blanco and the rood veg together and poach it until tender. The flavor infuses, and when it it's cooked, creates just a little of a caramelization around the veg, as the milk solids sweeten.  The tomato is just tomato water that is gelled with a little iota carageenen, to create a very Jose Andres 'yelatin' that is spoonable when hot and has a lovely, 'roll around in your mouth' feel.

Tell me some more about the set-up of the menu, alternating small plates and entrees?
I wanted to alternate from Taste to Dish for a few reasons. I wanted to formalize the tapas experience - the idea of having tastes of a few things - and to recreate the experiences that I had a a few high-end places in Spain. They basically used small plates/tastes as breathing time for the kitchen and palate cleansers for the diner.  There was also the fact that most of the tastes used a bunch of modern cuisine techniques that I had either experienced or learned about in Spain. The best way to help someone to understand simple spherification, for instance, is to serve it in a single bite so as to emphasize the technique at the same time as the visual appeal and flavor combination.  I wanted to take everyone on a little tour through everything that I experienced and the overall feeling of a real tasting menu.

I am one of those people who, when it comes down to it, just wants one perfect taste of something; enough to understand it, feel it, enough to think about it, have it trigger other thoughts, tastes and emotions. I am not a fan of a plate of food that has 3 flavors to it and is the end of your night of exploration, taste, and imagination. I thought that the menu design last night created a ton of conversation and interaction between people, like everyone was on the same journey, but at the same time being able to personalize it in conversation with friends and strangers alike.

Do you think Portland eaters and chefs are ready to enter the Modernist Cuisine scene? You know I'm skeptical, but what's your take on the perception of the techniques in Portland as a whole?
As far as Modernist Cuisine goes, I think chefs are ready, but I am sure that Portland diners are not.  It has always blown my mind to think why Castagna is everyone's pick for best restaurant in the city, even though they have never gone there to eat.  I was ready to have a crazy, eye opening experience there, having gone to Alinea in Chicago, and was completely let down. I wanted more spheres popping in my mouth, more flavored foams, more dry ice, more play on traditional recipes with super modern plating, but I got none of that. This makes me think that the question is not 'are portland diners ready for modernist cuisine' as much as 'what brand of modernist cuisine works in portland?'  Just looking at Eat Beat today, with the yogurt balls on that pea dish [at Aviary]? Karen Brooks liked them, so is that the green flag for chefs like me to start pushing in that direction?

You have to remember that I was an art student, and sculpture was what I did.  When you are working with wood or metal, you have specific tools to get specific results with your medium.  I love that.  Now food is my medium, but I have advanced beyond just plates as my palate.  Food for me is about experience, taste, sight, smell, beauty, fun, and not necessarily in that order. So the short answer is yes, Portland chefs are creative enough to execute modernist cuisine successfully, but I think the challenge is understanding the Portland diner.

Why did you get involved with Portland Food Adventures? What about the event made you want to get involved?
I got hooked up with PFA kind of by mistake. I'm pretty sure I read about it on Eater, about Cathy Whims, Scott Dolich and Jason French, and though, 'Why am I not in this? Maybe I should just email the creator and talk.' I do have to say that I thought it was a totally different thing that it is.  The way I read it first, and the reason that I wanted to be a part of it, is that I thought it was a day out with the chef to all their favorite places, like a tour, and I am one of those chefs that likes to run around town and see my friends/co-chefs/old employees.

So I thought it was a dinner, and a scheduled day for a bunch of people to cruse around town with the chef, and visit places they like, which would be an awesome idea.  But it turned out to be a different entity all together. PFA was a great way for me to show off a bit, but more importantly it was a perfect forum to experiment and create a unique dining experience for our guests. A lot of people really enjoyed their night, and I felt very connected with them by the end.  They trusted me and my food, and that is a very real concern for restaurants to accept and overcome. You can't put sweetbreads, calf's brains, octopus and exploding soup bites on your menu unless you have your diners trust that it will be awesome! 

What was unexpected about the event? Did anything surprise you?
I was really amazed at how much people were enjoying themselves and those around them.  I loved fielding all the questions about ideas behind dishes and techniques. I also really loved the informality of the dinner paired with the relative formality of the plates and courses.

I was expecting your scepticism, which was great, trust me, but I got very little from our little crowd of 'foodies' last night. It gave me a lot of hope, although it was a special dinner and not just a Tuesday night at Tabla.  I don't know if that is an indication of trends and things to come, or just the group acception of the theme of the dinner.  I find myself mentally bouncing between awesome high end super modern restaurant and the safe, satisfying 1, 2, 3 of Tabla. I have worked a lot of creativity and thought into all my dishes at Tabla, but I purposefully dont mention them on the menu, so as not to draw attention to them.  In the same breath, I do want to stress that I like having surprises on each plate, things expected and at the same time unexpected.

Last night's dinner also allowed my to serve things with instructions, which rarely happens in this town. I am happy that before the dinner started I mentioned that a few things would be interactive, and I was surprised that most people waited until I talked about what was set out in front of them. That just made it more fun for me and them. 

What's next for you? Any cool projects it the works?
Friday night service, of course! No really, I need to maintain Tabla's high level of standards and efficiency in the kitchen and on the floor.  I also think that we need to allow our price ($24) to reflect our level of cuisine, by raising that price a little. Looking at, of all things, Eat Beat today, I saw that Genoa is rocking out a 3 course at $40 and Natural Selection has a 4 course at $35.  Don't you think that Tabla needs to charge accordingly? It is very hard for me to make money for the restaurant when I am putting out course after course of beautifully plated, executed and conceived plates at a break neck low price.

But what I am really focusing on is promoting my Monday Tapas in the back room, hopefully creating a little dining secret that everyone knows about. The illusion of exclusivity paired with acessability is very appealing from me. That's like having a tiny restaurant that is popular because it is always full, because it is so small. I am going to use the venue to experiment, like last night, but also to have fun on what is otherwise a slower night for restos in PDX. $40 gets you in, to eat until you are done, and drink white, red, or bubbles until you decide that you need to go home, just like places I went to in San Sebastian. This is definately a trial for what I hope I can build into a new venue for my self, somewhere I can cook everything that I like to cook, surround myself with my favorite people, and do something that Portland will accept. You know me, im a creative guy, and I have an eye for detail, both for how the kitchen works and how the restaurant is marketed and presented to the public as a complete idea, concept, theme, all of that.  Im looking forward to 2011, I'll just say that. 

Thanks Tony! And now, for the photos...

Check out photos and stories for the previous Portland Food Adventures:  


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