Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Italian Nights: i Clivi Galea, Monchiero Barolo and a Bicycle Thief at Tabla

Tabla is one of those 'tone perfect' restaurants, where every detail is precise and appropriate.  The food is splendid, the wine list is remarkable, and the cocktail program, while small, is right on the mark as well.

Tabla wisely doesn't try to overdo the cocktails by putting too many selections out there.  Mind you, they have a handsomely stocked bar, and the bartenders can whip up anything you ask for, but they keep their featured cocktails focused---just as they do with every other aspect of the restaurant.

One of the more intriguing offerings currently is The Bicycle Thief, a blend of basil-infused gin, Campari, and Carpano Antica Formulae Vermouth.  The name of the cocktail obviously hearkens back to its Italian roots, recalling that eternal classic of Italian cinema by Vittorio di Sica, The Bicycle Thieves (I suspect someone at Tabla is a buff of old Italian cinecitta.)

Campari is that wonderfully bitter and visually striking bright reddish-purple liqueur (you may have had it in a Negroni) the Italians are crazy about.  Carpano Antica Formulae Vermouth is the original recipe of the classic vermouth from the 1800s, made in the old style so it's rich in botanicals, drier than most red vermouths today, and adds a pungent note to any cocktail.

But put these two classics together with the intense basil-infused gin and all its lovely botanicals, and you have one very assertive and highly aromatic cocktail in the European mode.

There's a clear presence of bitter orange in the entry, but the lovely herbal notes suffuse the flavor with intriguing complexity.  The basil is clearly, undeniably there, with a whiff of juniper, of course, from the gin, and the Campari adds not only bitterness but sweetness as well to balance the drink out nicely.

It was a perfect cocktail before the meal, with bright, tangy, lip-stinging and mouth-puckering flavors that perked up the palate, and it did what a cocktail is supposed to do: prepare the palate and stimulate the appetite!

Once prepared, the lucky diner gets to wander through the three part menu of appetizers, pastas, and main dishes.  The three part meal, with a choice from each category, is hands down one of the best bargains in town at $24.

The pastas sounded so good on this night, though, I couldn’t get past them, so ordered a delicious Spanish-influenced salad and doubled up on the pastas with the famous Tabla Ravioli first, followed by the fettucine with albacore tuna and capers.

The Tabla wine list, a creation of general manager Michael Garofola, is a wine lover’s delight, and clearly shows Garofola’s intense focus on distinctive and striking wines. Speak with Michael for more than about thirty seconds, as we did, and you’ll understand his shining passion for wines; he lights up like a beacon.

As complete and compelling and meticulously constructed as the wine list was, one immediately leaped out; when I saw it, all others fell out of contention.  

The i Clivi Galea Tocai Friulano, Colli Orientali del Friuli, 2004, is one of my favorite varieties, from one of my favorite producers, from one of my favorite regions.  A small, select, and almost cult level producing family, the Zannussi’s of i Clivi produce tiny amounts of regional wines under the organic/biodynamic philosophy.  They also insist on making their wines in the old fashion with long term aging---unusual for a white wine---and the results are strikingly individual. 

Galea 2004 and lagniappe from the Chef---a shrimp croquette, crunchy outside, creamy inside

The Galea in this vintage (although perhaps not in others) is 100% Tocai Friulano---a grape name now not permitted since it was disallowed by the authorities resulting from a conflict with Hungary’s Tokaji (don’t ask; it’s one of those weird wine things that doesn’t necessarily make sense), and now must be designated with the altogether bland “Friulano Bianco”.  Since the most current release of Galea, however, is the 2004, and predates that ruling it can still technically be called Tocai Friulano.

No matter the name, Tocai Friulano (also known as Sauvignon Vert or Sauvignonasse, is not usually distinctive---which is an utter shame because Friuli has proven it most certainly has the potential for greatness.  And the I Clivi once again affirms that.  Well aged, firm and tight, with the strange and enticing odors of apple cider, honey, toasted nuts and white flowers, the Galea is austere and lavish at one and the same time (How?  I have no idea!  Taste it and you'll see). 

The Galea is a golden mouthful of brilliant wine, at times like biting into a winter apple from the root cellar (for those who have been able to enjoy that particular experience), and at others showing a soft, viscous, honey and malt richness.  And it becomes amazingly complex with foods, especially with the Tabla Ravioli, a devastating simple ravioli with a poached egg, fresh ricotta, and swiss chard oozing out in golden splendor on the plate when broken with the fork.

Ever notice how most wine marketers spend a lot of time and words trying to convince you they make “food wines”---when it’s the Italians that actually do just that, without much talk or blather?

Staying with the Italian theme, but going to an entirely different wine from an entirely different region---Piedmont---I spotted another unbelievable value, waggling at my eye like a semaphore from the page:  a traditional old-school Monchiero Roere Barolo 2005.  That vintage, a trouble for some and totally dependent on whether the grapes were picked before or after the rains, was excellent for the Monchiero.

The tarry blackness of Monchiero and albacore fettucine 

Splendidly aromatic with that glorious perfume of Nebbiolo that, when described, sounds like anything but grape wine but immediately seizes the palate and the imagination when inhaled (and, yes, I did inhale), the Monchiero was love at first smell:  Dried roses and violets, road tar, shriveled raisins, pungent dried herbs, fresh-turned damp earth, mushrooms, dense, dark concentrate of blackfruit preserves, and, once again but at a different level, deeper, deeper, more road tar… does that sound enticing?  Well, believe it: it is.

The wood was a bit evident, and since I’m being critical the middle palate was a bit thin and dried out, but that’s a quibble of imperfection when considering how much sheer, intense pleasure this wine provided.  And despite my having a seemingly incompatible dish of albacore tuna and fettucine and capers and olives, the wine was gracious and amenable and adaptive (and especially so with the capers and black olives).

In the anti-climactic aftermath of that splendid Barolo, we properly opted for a simple Italianate dolce and a cup of my favorite coffee, Illy Cafe of Trieste (and yet another grace note for Tabla!) to taper off the evening.

Seriously: what more could one ask for?


  1. I'm glad you enjoyed the Monchiero so much. Thanks for writing about it.

    I wish I were eating that fettuccine right now...

    Tim Hallett
    Scoperta Importing

  2. I'm glad you helped make the Monchiero available for me to drink, Tim! Fine stuff and a rarity: excellent Barolo at a decently affordable price.

    And I see you have a few other interesting tidbits in your portfolio too, both Italian and Basque. Cool.