When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out -- and let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).
Restaurant: Tarbell's The Tavern Location: 3213 E. Camelback Road Open: Over two weeks Eats: Upscale European/American Price: $20 to $25+ per person
To call Mark Tarbell's The Tavern a wine bar is not only insufficient, it's just plain wrong.
True, the restaurant is attached to the chef's The Wine Store (formerly Sportsman's Fine Wines) and offers an extensive wine list. But it's clear as soon as you crack open the menu that The Tavern is as much a place for a casual but satisfying dinner as it is a place to sip on Chardonnay.
The Tavern's website explains the menu as a collection of dishes inspired by the chef's memories of European wine bars, but points out that it also serves a full menu of "foods that he like to eat."
There's a full page of sharable plates and starters that range from the Farmers Market Veggie Plate ($14) to Sterling royal caviar ($125). There's also a seafood bar (think oysters, crab, and lobster) in addition to six salads ranging in price from $9 to $13.
We chose to start with two of the menu's four bikinis, a unique dish that comes from Catalonia and Spain. The miniature sandwiches, similar to a French croque monsieur or American grilled cheese, come on wonderfully soft, barely sweet challah bread that gets delicately toasted just on the outside.
The truffle bikini ($4) features Spanish Manchego cheese dressed with a light drizzle of truffle and chive oils, resulting in an aromatic and indulgent dish. The jamón serrano and Manchego bikini ($4) was also a nice way to start the meal, with dry-cured Spanish ham and more Manchego.
Choosing an entree from the "Features" section of the menu might feel overwhelming given that the selections range from a Maine lobster roll ($26) that promises fresh lobster meat on a baked roll to classics like sloppy Joe sliders ($14) and the American classic burger ($16).
At the suggestion of our server we went with the croque monsieur ($16) and a lamb burger with mint aoili ($19).
The croque monsieur offered more of that perfect challah bread, this time draped in a crispy layer of melted Grueyre cheese. Tucked inside is a perfect amount of sliced ham that doesn't overwhelm the delicate housemade bechamel.
Meanwhile, the lamb burger delivered a flavorful and moist patty of ground lamb topped with remarkably fresh mint aioli. The challah bun also encases Crow's Dairy goat cheese, roasted tomatoes, caramelized onions, and arugula. Both come with a side of housemade potato chips that we just couldn't resist finishing.
And if you're smart, you'll wash your dinner down not with a glass of wine -- because, really, you can do that anywhere -- but with one of The Tavern's cocktails. None of them use hard spirits, substituting them with wines and beers. They may not be as strong as typical drinks, but they still achieve complex and enjoyable flavors.
The smoked sake martini ($10) combines tea-infused smoked Rock Sake, Nihon Shudo Sake, orange syrup, and fresh lemon. It's a light drink but fills the mouth with a delicate smoke essence that never overpowers the fruit flavors of orange and lemon.
There's also a take on a Moscow mule that features Kina Avion l' d Or, a French aperitif with Cinchona bark, orange peel, wormwood and other spices. The Tavern's Dessert Mule ($9) blends in Byrrh Grand Quinquina, ginger beer, lime juice to create a gingery-heavy drink with slight floral and bitter notes.
The restaurant also offers a full bar with a large TV and a small but cozy dining room. Features like wood paneled walls lend a comfortable, upscale atmosphere that makes us think The Tavern will be a nice fit for the Biltmore neighborhood.