Lots of Plates

VinTabla's food is unquestionably good--but its concept is complex and confusing

VinTabla, which opened in January in Plaza Colonial (across Skyline Drive from La Encantada), is everything, all at once.

It's a wine store, and it's got a raw seafood bar and an artisan cheese shop, and a salumeria and a patisserie. And an inside-outside bar. It's got chef-side dining and a private room. There are small plates and smaller plates and big plates for two or more, but no standard entrées. You can get wine by the taste, glass or bottle, and they do flights. It's so aggressively à la carte that it prices oysters individually and sells steak by the inch.

I think choice is a good thing. On the other hand, I'm middle-class, middle-age and easily confused, and the sad part is, I think most people are more or less like me. The food at VinTabla is good and sometimes great, and the room is nice ... but it's all a little too intricate and disjointed, I fear, to really succeed.

And, boy, I do not want to think about how much each oyster costs while it's sliding down my throat.

When I went to dinner there, I invited my friends James and Yvonne, because they actually know something about wine. (Ed and I are unashamedly happy, week after week, with the $4.99 Frascati from Trader Joe's.) But we arrived early, and before they came to save us, our server had talked me into a glass of sauvignon blanc that cost $14.50 and which I didn't really like because, basically, it wasn't the $4.99 Trader Joe's Frascati.

James and Yvonne intelligently ordered 2-ounce tastes from the extensive list, which they found interesting: Yvonne had a Slovenian sauvignon blanc ($4.20), because she'd never had a wine from Slovenia, and James tried a cremant rosé ($3.95) in the same spirit of adventure. They went on to sample a Rhone red, a gewürztraminer and a shiraz--all for between $3.50 and $4.50 for a taste. Our server knew the list well, but the wine was consistently slow in coming--she apologized and said the bar was running behind. (The place wasn't very busy, and, honestly, how long can it take to pour 2 ounces of wine?)

We decided to get into the spirit of the menu, so we each ordered two small plates to share. (Many dishes can be ordered in either "taste" or "share" sizes.) As it turned out, this convivial way of doing things, which VinTabla encourages, presented fairly severe practical difficulties. Our server brought our dishes in two waves, but the table was still uncomfortably crowded. There were no serving utensils, so germophobes would probably want to stick to their own dishes--which is what most of the people around us seemed to be doing. Another difficulty is that the bread plates, the only dish available to put our little helpings on, were tiny, so we spent a lot of time passing. Yet a third problem--and I know I sound like a hopeless whiner here--is that you want to hold on to the menu so you can get more things to taste, but it's big, and there's no place for it, and the lighting is so dim that it's hard to read.

Most of the food was really good and strikingly pretty, and if things didn't harmonize the way a well-constructed entrée plate would, it did stay interesting. Yvonne loved her French onion soup ($8; we didn't try to share that, for obvious reasons), and the three carnivores at the table liked the Parma prosciutto pizzetta ($10)--the prosciutto was first-rate and cut very, very thin, as it should be. The marinated mushrooms ($5.95) were a hit, but one of my selections, the Peking duck dumplings ($6), weren't nearly as tasty as they sounded. I enjoyed the delightfully oleaginous sticky rice with sausage and shiitake mushrooms ($5), although no one else was as enthusiastic. Probably the best dish on the table was the luscious roasted sea scallops with habanero mango salsa ($8.95). The scallops were big, sweet and perfectly cooked; however, there were only two of them, which honestly didn't seem like nine bucks' worth.

Dessert was uniformly terrific, and here, we were back in familiar territory. Yvonne polished off her toffee sticky cake ($4); James enjoyed his lemon custard ($4); and I loved my panna cotta swimming in a wonderfully flavorful, acidic fruit soup ($5). My coffee latte (their coffee is from Tucson's own Adventure Coffee Roasting) was as good as any I've ever had. All in all, VinTabla finished strong.

My feeling about the sharing/tasting/continuing ordering thing is that it needs work. Some styles of restaurant--like sushi and tapas bars--are set up for progressive ordering, and some, like most Asian restaurants, assume you'll share dishes and make it easy. At VinTabla, it's just too hard. I think there'll be some further tinkering, and I hope they get it right.

My advice? As that well-known restaurant maven Henry David Thoreau put it: Simplify, simplify.

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