Tablespoon came to mind as a nice spot to have a cozy, intimate dinner when Tom called and suggested we get together with Michelle. I should know by now that an evening with Tom is an adventure, and rather a fluid one: We were to meet that night at a cocktail party, and by the time I showed up, Vera had been invited to join us for supper. It transpired that a mutual friend, Ed, was shooting a commercial nearby. Cell phones were employed; Ed arrived, almost magically, with a lovely blonde; and soon I was calling Tablespoon to ask if we could increase our reservation to six.
Happily, we could, and when we got there we had to wait only a few minutes, some of our group smoking cigarettes on the sidewalk, some clinging close to the bar and in the tiny entrance while our table was being set. During which time Tom ran into a couple he knew on their way out. The word was that the food was very good, but that it took an awfully long time to arrive.
Six is one or two more than I like to have for a working meal, but everybody was gracious about ordering different things and being sure to offer me tastes. It wasn't a particularly foodie crowd: Dinner, for them, was more about conversation than an overwhelming gastronomic experience. And the food didn't prove especially distracting. The starters were not, I thought, particularly brilliant -- the generous salad of young field greens was drenched in a too-sweet vinaigrette, the ricotta and herb ravioli was pleasant but innocuous, as was the pizza margharita. Michelle was well pleased with her cream of sweet potato soup, dotted with puréed basil and a few mussels. I had plunged for the pricey ($20, about twice what the other salads, pizzas, pastas, and appetizers were going for) seared foie gras, a nice-sized but slightly disappointing piece of the liver. Like the curate's soft-boiled egg in the famous Punch cartoon, "Parts of it were excellent!" In other words, there were stringy bits marring the carefully seared lushness, and I found its accouterments fussy (again with the overdressed and oversweet).
Things got markedly better with the main courses. The house style seemed to be soft morsels of meat or fish perched on top of interesting vegetables (also mostly soft), with a benediction of flavorful jus poured over all from a small pitcher at table -- a fancy and warming touch. Still comfort food, but haute. My favorite dish, and one I would gladly eat again, was the sliced oven-roasted pork tenderloin on a bed of rarely seen salsify (also called oyster plant, for its supposed oysterlike flavor), with translucent cippolini onions and bright green leaves of Brussels sprouts. Two of us had the night's steak preparation, sliced atop mashed potatoes and spinach, and the meat had a good beefy tang. I was perplexed by my pasta dish, drowned in broth and topped with greens and shreds of lamb shank that had been braised into submission. Our server had called it a signature dish; I found the meat way overcooked, the flavor elusive. The slender Vera, an eccentric orderer, seemed to be having the best meal: She'd been delighted with her first course, a pearly slab of good, firm house-cured salmon gravlax served with hearts of romaine and a caper-and-chopped-egg mimosa, and she loved her main course, a bowl of creamy mashed potatoes.
Suddenly I noticed that we'd been joined by Michelle's boyfriend, David, who'd snugged himself next to Ed on the banquette and was already tucking into a salad, followed, I was pleased to see, by the pork. We'd thrown the busy place (completely full on a Thursday night) two curves -- the increased reservation, the unexpected arrival -- and the staff had dealt with them calmly.
I hadn't noticed any long lag time between courses, but it turned out there was no time for dessert -- Tom was anxious to shepherd the group to a jazz club in North Beach. I begged off, feeling slightly worn.
I'd been happily anticipating my dinner with Ruby and Mary, whom I hadn't seen since their wedding last September in Toronto, until I was led to our table. It looked like a joke: a deuce that was already pretty small for two now set for three, with the third chair optimistically wedged in between the long side of the table and a short wooden wall that separated us from the service area. I remonstrated with the maitre d', to no avail, pointing out that we had passed two parties of three sitting comfortably at tables for four. "They were seated earlier," he said (Yes? So?), and added some gobbledygook about keeping the menu prices low and value for money, which didn't seem exactly responsive to my concerns. "I could probably seat you at a bigger table in about half an hour," he offered, which I declined. This time the place had thrown me a curve, and I wasn't calm about it at all.
Ruby and Mary treated it as a joke that we would surmount. ("Even for two, it wouldn't be a great table," Ruby said, pointing out its proximity not only to the service corner, but also to the swinging door that led to the kitchen. "And they didn't even know we were all women," I said, which is usually when they give you a sucky seating. I was thinking of the miserable table my sister and I were given in Kinkead's in D.C. after an hour's wait: directly below the entrance, between two staircases that were continually in use, and treated to a blast of arctic air every time the door opened. When we protested, we were led to a much better table, and had a memorable meal.)
There was a "Where's the beets?" moment when Mary's roasted baby beet salad arrived, but it turned out they were hiding under a massive thatch of greens. The chunks of red and yellow beets were properly sweet, properly tender, and wittily escorted by a brilliant dab of puréed beets, but we didn't think there were quite enough of them. There was a "Does this taste off to you?" moment with Ruby's Dungeness crab salad, a fussy-looking presentation with bitter bits of caramelized endive, Asian pear, tufts of sprouts; no, I thought, but the texture was mushy. My starter, a warm bowl of soft macaroni and cheese with small pieces of applewood-smoked bacon crusted with bread crumbs -- apparently something of an homage to the vanished Spoon's menu -- came off the best.
We'd managed to get through the first course without too much discomfort (I caught the bottle of Riesling, placed perilously close to the edge of the table, when Ruby inadvertently knocked it off), but placing our three main courses and three recklessly ordered vegetable sides proved to be something of a puzzle. We gave up our stylish rectangular bread container made of silver mesh and pushed things around, but still our wineglasses had to be carefully angled out from under the lips of our big white plates and bowls when we needed a sip. It was, uh, snug.
This night the steak (with mashed potatoes and sautéed spinach) was a marinated tri-tip, rosy rare and tasty. I liked the slices of roast duck breast more than the squashy confit leg, served on a hillock of braised red cabbage and spaetzle. I was shocked by my first bite of braised free-range chicken on a bed of green lentils with wild mushrooms: It had the unmistakable taste of yesterday's chicken. Or, I thought, the kitchen had invented a labor-intensive way of creating that taste right away. Except for the steak, you really didn't have to chew anything. The Brussels sprouts were a pretty green, and bacon improves nearly everything, but the glazed root vegetables were sweet and characterless, and the mashed potatoes seemed less creamy than before ("They taste like they're made with broth rather than cream," Ruby said).
Dessert cheered us up considerably, especially Mary's souffléed blood orange crème brûlée, an airy concoction served in a tall container, hiding a bottom layer of fruity hazelnut chutney; and Ruby's dense chocolate torte sided by a soft oval of ice cream whose faint taste of tarragon was, if not a revelation with the chocolate, certainly novel and interesting. The table for two had been novel, too, but if three of you choose to dine at Tablespoon, a question about table size might be in order when you reserve. Served in discomfort, comfort food becomes discomfiting.