Saturday, August 22, 2009

Pasta La Vista, Baby, (aka A Tavola, Darlinghurst)...

Some people enjoy the untold benefits of having the ability to think - before - they speak. Yes, some people, it seems, are gifted with that automatic delay of 2 or 3 sustaining seconds during which they can balance, in the interests of both propriety and good sense, what they do say, with what they ought to say. It's what holds civilization together, after all. I, however, belong to that class, far more hapless and forsaken of god, who were born, sans trapdoor to the mouth. Being a girl and being Lebanese (and being a Bechara), the odds were always stacked against me. It's Sad But True, I have spoken without thinking too many times and have caused more inadvertent offence than a flatulent puppy. Even my foot spends more time in my mouth than it does in my havianas. Many are the days I have wished I was born with no mouth, many are the days I have cursed this provocative pie hole of pitiable existence... but one night at A Tavola, Darlinghurst was all it took to teach me, irrevocably and for all time, The Reason That I Have A Mouth. Try and stay with me, i'm not going to lie, at times it might hurt, the pictures themselves tell a tale so delicious you might just have to faint from the decadent, Italian desire of it all. Casanova wasn't a man, he was a dish...

CakeKnifealians, we shan't rush into the food. No, not yet, not until I have set the very seductive scene. First, I am going to dim the lights, then I am going to trick a candle into a quick-flick-matched spark. In the shadows that ensue, I am going to ask you to close your eyes and to magically adorn yourself in silken, billowing black. Strap-sash-sway black. In towering heels and in the finest of stockings. Black trousers, handshakes and jackets, bespoke. Cuff links, rings, powdered noses and sleek hair. We are scrubbing it up, Nice. A Tavola is a tad bit Jekyll and Hyde. The crammed and lively downstairs has a crowded, communal table in sunken marble upon which the din and chatter of many jovial meals has taken place. It's loud and alive, and it's definitely kicking. But upstairs, in sunken lights which hauntingly arc across cream coloured walls, a much more thoughtful, private and dramatically heightened space invites you into the kind of timeless room, and into the kind of lingering mood, where even the clocks forget to keep ticking.

Angular silver upon layered linen. Polished glasses which trap, reflect and confuse the shadow laden whispers of a gentle, honeyed light. Heavy plates with suggestive curves. A chair in friction against a wooden floorboard, the unfolding of an elegent serviette, the flicker of a forgotten candle: these are tangible OnceUponATimes, they are the waving of the wand, the casting of a spell. They are decadent, sumptuous and expensive, Prelude. The breath, it seems, has no choice but to bait.

A sharp and discerning waiter, in a style that almost belongs to another time, narrates to us a fairy tale of special dishes. Even being a foodie, this bit of formal dining always makes me impatient and leaves me feeling a tad wanky, not tonight, though. In an informed and knowing meter we all listen pleased and patiently, captivated by the descriptions of how the beetroot is cooked and how the pasta is torn. It's like a Shakespearean Act One, beautiful, special, elegant and with not even a trace of pretension. Between his service and the lighting I already begin to fall into some kind of ethereal foodie lull, I know a memorable meal is coming.

An ebullient, generous red, large and warm and spicy, dulls the head in a way that heightens the palate. Sipping slowly the sonorous smoothness, I feel myself starting to sink back into the chair and to feel my blood doing wheelies upon my flushing cheeks. Tats explains how the menu, like a Herclitan river (my hot aired analogy, not his), is never the same and always changing. Simple, stunning, commanding Italian. I generally don't go mad over Italian food, but then, what would be the fun and fancy of a world without surprises. Oh, love at first bite.

Breathe in, hold onto the side of your chair, let the pulse quicken and everything else become slower. I am going to struggle with remembering the exact ingredients, but the flavours are faithfully burned into my brain forever. In my intense enjoyment of all that is to follow, I almost forgot that I would have to be writing about it later. I was so overcome and absorbed by the experience that I am sure some of these descriptions will sound like fluttering journal entries from an intense encounter. It's amorous stuff, I make no apologies. A Tavola means 'to the table', but with food like this, did they ever think they were going to be able to hold us back?

A group decision to share three entrees was one of the best life choices I was ever a part of. This celestial constellation of earthly flavour had me tasting stars. A salted, tender fried salame, in thin, aching strips, sways ever so gently in the creamy embrace of some of the most profoundly stultifying parmesan I have ever melted into. With little, lively flickers of bitter rocket, it is a perfectly balanced mess of taste and feel and colour. So simple and so stunning, richness broken up with the lightness and sharpness of the rocket and the saltiness of the salame. Easily one of the most memorable entrees of my life. Being a group of 5, we each only got a few lingering mouthfuls, it was the perfect amount. Being able to take only 2 or 3 bites really makes you fall into the flavour that much more, it was so delicious I died and came back to life (not really).

You've had the standard prosciutto with green leaf and tender cheese before, but you haven't had it here. Not only were all of the ingredients in this dish of a quality I haven't experienced before in Italian food (and i've been to a 2 michelin star restaurant in Venice), the proportions were so perfect that they actually made me understand this classic combination in a new way. You can't have too much of anything, there needs to be just the barest breath of an amount of prosciutto to little globs of achingly sweet, creamy cheese to green, bitter leaf and cherry tomato burst. You actually taste the meat more when there isn't too much of it, the cheese, too. This was delightful, the cherry tomatoes were honestly the sweetest I have ever had, biting into them was like having the sun rise in your mouth. You'd take a bite and pause, think about it, really let it roll around your tongue, then you'd tuck into another. Such slow, thoughtful and delirious eating, tempered by Blush-Warm sips of dizzying red. Surrendering.

Tender beetroot, roasted for longer than I have been alive, reunites with an old lover in the form of some phenomenally sharp goats cheese, so dreamy and rich and deep. Little spatterings of intense parsley lend a bit of tantalizing tangent to a combination that is quite classic. Beautiful, soft, clean and rich. And this is just the beginning!

I am going to do something dangerous. I am going to show you a close up of a meal that changed my life, given that the menu is a shapeshifter, if you dine at A Tavola seeking it out, find it unavailable and have no choice other than to kill yourself, I am sorry, but I fully support you in your decision and will explain everything to your grief stricken loved ones. This photo isn't just a picture of one of the most perfect meals I have ever experienced, it is also a photographic document which records the moment, at about 7.40 pm on the 22nd of August, 2009, when it finally happened. I never thought it would, I mean, it's been 29 years. But ladies and gentlemen of the jury, Amanda Bechara, after years of ignorance, finally Got Pasta.

Pappardelle with slow cooked veal, light of my life, fire of my loins. Pappardelle, my sin, my soul. Papp-ar-del-le: the tip of my tongue taking a trip of (four) steps down the palate, to tap, at three, on the teeth. Papp-ar-del-le. This dish is epic, loving, lustful. It is big and sure, rich and abundant. It is like eating all of the sweetest words that Nabokov ever wrote. It's TonguePicasso. It's MouthMozart. It is the finest pasta I have ever had. My tastebuds have been conquered and they will never be the same.

DopeyThick, languid and shiny locks of wonderfully textured pappardelle lay tipsy and slow on a bountiful plate beneath some of the richest and most tender veal you will ever come to know. A couple of baptismal spatterings of luscious grated parmesan upon a sinking bed of meaty pasta, and you have got yourself and your mouth something of such vociferous, entwining deliciousness that you may as well put your feet up and die when it's done, how could life, living or love add anything to the experience that is this dish? My god. I won't break out into any poetic profanity, but you know I want to! This is classic, simple and magnificent food. The richness of the veal comes with no heaviness, just tender, gentle strands of drunken meat that almost melt with the cheese into the culinary canvas of some perfect home made pasta This dish should come with the Last Rites. 'Sacrelishious'.

A close second was my 'torn pasta' with beautifully cooked octopus and squid. Normally, I don't enjoy seafood with pasta, the fishiness never seems to marry with the doughiness in a way that I can understand. But this was perfect seafood, subtle and lusciously rubbery against a gentle bed of achingly slippery pasta perfection. It had a gentle sweetness to it which danced around the subtle saltiness of the squid and octopus. So luscious to eat, a buttery and soft texture that was broken up by the freshest seafood. I don't even think they had to catch this octopus or squid, it probably saw the pasta from afar, swam up to it and surrendered its life into a deadly, delicious embrace. If you think it's just the pasta they're doing well, have a lookie here...

A cut of lamb that is so regal it should come on a throne and not a plate. Cooked simply and rarely with lemon on a kingdom of softened potato. Bang-on lamb, sink and bite and melt, cut and cross with a bite of rich potato. It's a wonderful main, gorgeous to cut into with a silver blade. Simple, solid and true. Mary had a little lamb, why shouldn't you?

People pray by candlelight, that their dreams might come true. Perhaps it is something about the sacred space that spills out from waxed incandescence that leads us to believe that our wishes can happen the way we want them to. I said a silent prayer by candlelight. I said it alone and from the deepest part of who and what I am. I whispered it to myself from a hopeful heart: let the dessert be bloody good too:

Haleluljah! We have lift off. Look at that frothy, wispy, dreamy swirl of caramelled meringue. It's a perfect, luscious, sugared tutu that encases a dark, delicious secret: a lovely ice cream heart. This little baby pirouettes across your tongue, into and out of the burnt traces of a perfectly caramelised banana. Shiny, toffeed, frothied, winsome, wistful close-your-eyes-sighs-surprise. It's light and gently sweet and soft and hard and burnt and white. So honeyed and soft, so gloriously different. It's like cloud watching on your tongue.

Or perhaps some orange and almond flourless fancy? Calories Shmalories. This is candied orange mouth bomb. Drunken, sticky, soft/moist cake, drowning in orange stick-trick-lickity-liquor and dolloped with grappaed fig ice cream. Slivers of candied orange that taste like caremlised fossils of psychotic citrus will stick like maddeningly messy fly paper to your taken tongue. This is how we cake, and this is why we ache...

...A last supper of sorts, and a flawless Sydney set up. This is beautiful, Bellucian Italian. Simple and knowing, exquisite and elegant, decadent and resounding. A meal come true. The five of us were all stupefied sighs after it was over. We sat there, silent and glowing in gentle aftermath of what food is all about.

A Tavola is a Sydney must. I've not been this impressed with fine dining in quite a while. A perfect experience of food, wine, space and service, it doesn't miss a beat. There is a fair bit of pricer Italian in Sydney, but none I have tried is executing it so perfectly. A Tavola sets an impressive standard, genuine flavour from impeccable ingredients, these people know their food. Book a big or an intimate table, set aside a few good hours, order a nice drop and let the fates have their wonderful way with you.

A Tavola happens at 348 Victoria St Darlinghurst, ph 9331 7871. Their web page, where you can find a full menu, is here. Nothing to fault, and a night that for all I know, could have been a dream. Wow. You must try this place.

This night was a welcome reminder of how exciting food can be, how much I love restaurants, and how much more you enjoy life when you take some friends, stop, slow down and just let it all unfold.

A Tavola: It's from heaven to the table and it's pasta, la vista, which is why i'll (definitely) be back.


Mardi Michels said...

What. A. Stunning. Review.

WOW is all I can say.

And will forward this info to my parents who live in Sydney - I think they would like this place!

amanda said...

thanks mardi, ask your folks to take me with them!

A Slave Journal said...

Hi Amanda, we met this morning at Cafe Ish. I love your writing, and enthusiasm over food! A girl after my own stomach ;)

Will be revisiting for SURE! Oh, and also visiting A Tavola.

Cheers, Natasha

amanda said...

natasha! that was quick, glad you like it, you shouldve tried some of my pancakes this morning, it wouldve spread the joy and saved me from being so full, get to a tavola quickly so they still have the veal pappardelle! xx

Alexander Holt said...

Quite an evocative review, Amanda! As a man who gets his pasta on at least twice a week usually, I'm going to have to try this place out.

BTW, from now on, due to the Lolita reference, I shall refer to pappardelle as "paedophile pasta."

Trish said...

A Tavola is nice, but I find Pendolino much nicer. You can't go past their Pappardelle with veal ragu and bone marrow, or the ravioli. I am interested to see which one you like better!

bleeding hearts said...

your writing is just glorious. love your blog.