If you're like me, you look forward to sitting down at a table of beautifully prepared food. There is nothing more enjoyable than being invited by someone to sit down, release your worries, and partake in an experience they have created just for you to relax and savor. On a recent trip to Tavolo Italian Bistro restaurant in downtown Tulsa, I had that very pleasure.
Chef Justin Thompson is no stranger to the Tulsa restaurant scene. If you've been around Tulsa for very long, you probably don't even need an introduction as to who he is or where he came from. What you should know is that after opening three restaurants in a little over two years, he knows a thing or two about what type of dining Tulsans are looking for.
Since the restaurant's name Tavolo means "to sit down at or come to the table," I decided to do just that and interview its creator firsthand. I wanted to find out from Justin himself what goes into bringing a restaurant like Tavolo to life.
"The process that I go through in developing a restaurant concept is about the same fundamentally," Thompson said of his rapid-fire restaurant openings of late. "I start with a theme for the restaurant, largely driven by the type of food we want to serve, and then fill in the gaps with interior design, construction, management team, and so forth, all the way down to which silverware to buy and what the table should look like when people are dining there."
He admitted that one of the hardest things about doing all that is not actually being the one doing all of that.
"It takes a lot of efficient, detailed, and respectful communication with a large group of people to get things done the way I see it working in my mind," he said. "I think I have focused a great deal of effort on learning how to delegate responsibility and be a good leader. That is certainly not something I have always been good at. It took another boss of mine in the past telling me that I will always have a cap on what I can accomplish if I don't focus on delegating and leading. I'm grateful that I've had good mentors."
Those good mentors have allowed Thompson to pursue his restaurant dreams, including his desire to make his diners happy, not just full.
"I just want them to be happy and feel like their experience enhanced their life, if only for a short time," he said.
Asked for one word describing how he'd like patrons to walk out of Tavolo, Thompson said, "Comforted."
After our chat, I had the pleasure of experiencing firsthand the elements Thompson described when he envisioned the dining experience at Tavolo.
My friend and I sat down for dinner and decided to sample courses from each section of the menu. We started off with two selections from the antipasti menu, Caprese Panzanella ($7) and Uovo Fritto ($9). The Caprese Panzanella is focaccia crouton style salad with baby mozarella pieces, fresh basil, and a 20-year-old balsamic vinaigrette that was intense and very pleasing. The Uovo Fritto, which literally means "fried egg," reminded me of the Italian version of a French Lyonnaise salad with a fried egg rather than poached. It was crisp on the outside and beautiful and runny on the inside. With pieces of pancetta, parmesan and an anchovy dressing, I quickly fell for this Italian lover.
The next course was "primi," or pasta as it's known in English. We sampled the Ricota Gnudi ($16), a combination of gnocchi and "nude" ravioli. It was light and creamy beside the beautifully braised lamb pieces with mint pesto and seared crimini mushrooms. We also tried the Tagliatelle Nero ($21). This handmade pasta is similar to papradelle ribbons in shape and colored jet black with squid ink. This flavorful pasta was complimented with a spring pea puree, butter-poached lobster, and crushed red pepper crumb. The Pope himself might swoon over this brilliant dish.
For the entrees -- or "secondi" as it's labeled on the menu -- we sampled the Sea Scallops ($24)and the Piedmont Beef ($28). My third choice would have been the Porchetta, or "crispy pork belly wrapped around pork tenderloin," but the other two entrees captured my attention for the moment. The Sea Scallops were perfectly seared and seasoned well. This plate was presented somewhat deconstructed with components of sweet potato and polenta dusted sweet breads and topped with a lemon parsley vinaigrette. The dish was citrine, well composed and had great texture. The Piedmont Beef was both a salute to a beautifully seared beef tenderloin and a succulent piece of short rib married together on a plate.
As you can imagine, when it came time for dessert, my stomach said "no," but my passion for Italian treats overpowered my better judgment. We order the Tiramisu and Lemon Olive Oil Cake. We were torn between those two options and the Strawberry Sorbetto, made in-house, from scratch. Our server was gracious and brought us a sample of the refreshing frozen delight just to appease our curiosity. It was even better than it sounded with pistachios, basil syrup, and reduced balsamic.
The Tiramisu was a classic rendition of the creamy, espresso-soaked dessert. This version was served with white chocolate accents and candied lemon peel. The Lemon Olive Oil Cake was my dessert pick of the evening. This dense, rich amaretto-soaked slice of life beamed with flavor and served with lemoncello gelato and candied peel, I was in citrus heaven.
The ambiance at Tavolo is nothing shy of urban elegance filled with downtown charm. When I walked in, I had to remind myself I was in Tulsa and not a restaurant in Manhattan. The atmosphere has great energy, and the two-story dining room is filled with two- and four-seat tables for a cozy and intimate experience.
The bar offers a well written wine menu, as well as unique cocktails and daily Italian influenced specialty drinks. I sampled a Strawberry Belini during my chat with the chef. It was a great beginning to a very satisfying dining experience.
Overall, my time spent Tavolo restaurant was a true delight. The servers were very gracious, well educated and attentive. The atmosphere was lively and provided a great space to have a drink with a friend, and the dining room was warm and quiet enough a formal dinner shortly after.
Check out Tavolo for lunch or dinner and sample authentic Italian cuisine in a charming downtown Tulsa location.
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