Whenever people ask where I like to eat on my days off, Nook is right up there near the top of the list. It's a chic hole-in-the-wall with a friendly neighbourhood vibe that serves simple pasta, bubbly-crusted pizza and good wine.
The only problem is that there's almost always a lineup to get in. So wasn't I excited when Nook's owners decided to expand the Italian concept - and accommodate the spillover - by turning its sister restaurant, Tapastree, into Tavola?
Right around the corner from Nook, on Robson at Denman, Tapastree had been around for what seems like forever. Thirteen years was long enough for chef and co-owner Mike Jeffs, who said he couldn't change a single small plate (Tapastree started the now-ubiquitous trend) without a riot from his regulars.
He was bored. I get it. I'm the kind of eater who always wants to order the daily special. Still, there are some very sound arguments to be made for consistency, especially when a new restaurant is still establishing itself.
For instance, it's slightly annoying to read about several dishes on a restaurant website, only to discover they're unavailable when you go in. It's even more annoying to return a week later - craving the veal scaloppini that you couldn't fit in on that first visit - and find almost the entire menu changed yet again.
Mr. Jeffs isn't just mixing things up - he's out of control. If he plans on maintaining a daily changing menu, he really should advertise it as such.
The room itself has the same sort of unsettled quality. Okay, I'll be blunt - it looks like a cafeteria and smells like a woodshop.
The square, 50-seater has been modernized and opened up with a raised ceiling, sit-down mozzarella bar at the back and a long communal table running down the centre.
But it all feels very unfinished, and I'm not just referring to the high-gloss varnish on the wood tables: A month after opening, it was still sticky enough to suction wine glasses and so rank it induced headaches.
Fortunately, there's some very good food to be had here at reasonable prices, most of it served on big, family-style platters for sharing. There are no pizzas at Tavola. But as with Nook, the dishes are traditional and rustic and made with high-quality ingredients that are allowed to shine through simple preparation.
On the first visit, we started with a small appetizer of hard-boiled eggs served on a creamy bed of anchovy aioli with two white anchovies laid over top. It was unfussy, robust and perfectly priced at a mere $5.
From there we continued with some excellent rabbit ($24) that had been tenderly braised with prunes and olives, and served smothered in a thick, chunky sauce fragranced with tarragon. It paired surprisingly well with a big bowl of spaghetti cacio e pepe ($16), which is similar to a classic alio and olio, but finished with pecorino, wilted arugula and heaps of fresh cracked pepper that sneak up on the back of the palate, yet subside just as quickly before the burn sets in.
Add a little broccolini on the side ($7) - sautéed with whole garlic cloves, chili, olive oil and charred lemon halves - and you've got pretty much a perfect meal in my books. Especially when Blondie, The Doors and April Wine are thrumming softly in the background. Did someone steal my workout playlist?
So what happened? The next time I went in, Mr. Jeffs wasn't working and the food wasn't nearly as good. Seared albacore tuna ($16) had way too much going on - black olives, capers, raisins, arugula, lemon and some extremely hot chili peppers that overpowered everything.
Brick chicken ($22) has been the one constant item on the menu and I can easily understand why (even though I really was craving the veal scaloppini). The kitchen splits the chicken in half and slowly roasts it with hot bricks covered in foil. Served in a buttery jus with fistfuls of roasted garlic cloves, the skin is golden and crispy; the meat is moist and juicy.
But then arrives the daily pasta special. When the waiter describes it, the dish sounds a lot like the fettuccine with wild mushrooms and a light cream sauce that I really wanted to try on my first visit.
Wrong. This dish is made with enoki mushrooms. Enoki? Yes, those white, watery, tasteless, cultivated Japanese mushrooms that come wrapped in plastic. And why advertise that it comes with butternut squash, only to have the chef decide halfway through the evening that this combination does not go very well and take it off the menu without telling the waiter?
The service was equally erratic. On the first visit, we were waited upon by general manager Brad Rourke, who is easily one of the smoothest, most capable waiters in Vancouver. On the second visit, the waiter couldn't even tell us the difference between burrata and mozzarella (which constitute quite a large portion of the menu) and changed his mind three times about the names and order of cheese on our tasting platter ($20).
If they can warm up the room and establish some consistency, Tavola could do well. But for now, there's much better Italian to be had in Vancouver - including Nook, right around the corner.
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