From reviews I had read about A Tavola (‘at the table’ in Italian), it seemed that I had missed a gem by not having eaten at this Italian eaterie in the Southern Suburbs. After having eaten there earlier this week, I cannot see what they were raving about – the food was average and expensive, and the service was shocking!
I arrived after a tasting of Old Vines’ wines (the Baron von Holdt exceptional) at the home of mother-and-daughter winemakers Irina von Holdt and Fran Botha/Potgieter, at 9.30 pm. I was not sure whether I would be welcome at that time, especially as the two persons sitting eating at a table nearest the door (turned out to be the manager and a staff member) made no attempt to acknowledge my arrival. I carried on walking, and was greeted by a waitress, pointing at all the empty tables, to make my choice.
Mike came to present his services as the waiter, and handed me a laminated standard menu, another photocopied menu of “Specialities” (these were defined by him as being on a menu that changes regularly!), as well as a paper winelist (No Diner’s Club Winelist Award for this one). The menu highlights the ‘rules and regulations’ of this establishment – one may not be there between 4 – 6 pm, nor after 11 pm. Heaven help you if you are having a good time, and you loose track of time. No menu ‘changes or variations to any dishes please’, the menu stipulates – all reflecting the Italian ‘flexibilty’ of this restaurant! All food items on the menu are in Italian, with English descriptions. Corkage costs R30.
The restaurant is quite large, and I am sure that they can accommodate about 100 guests per sitting, especially as they have outside tables too. The kitchen is open-plan to the restaurant, with a counter that runs along most of the length of the restaurant. The walls are a deep-red, with lots of glass doors, which must be ideal for summer dining. The red colour scheme is carried across to the staff dress, who look smart in uniform red shirts and black pants. The chairs are unattractive, and make a terrible noise when diners get up and move them on the dark floor tiles. The tables looked like they were covered with good white table cloths, until I heard the staff scrubbing the plastic (I kid you not!) tablecloths right next to where I was still eating. There is a tiny deli section as one enters, with Italian products. Italian music was playing softly. A holder with Olitalio olive oil and balsamic vinegar is a standard on each table.
I ordered Vitello ai Funghi e Vino Bianco from the Specialities menu, and was disappointed when the “marianted” veal scallops arrived at the table – my plate had more pasta than veal on it, the wine sauce making it look as if there was more meat. The ‘wild mushrooms’ tasted as if they were out of a tin. The overriding taste was one of extreme saltiness, dominating the promised wine in the sauce. The dish, with four small veal scallops, cost R115. I did not think this to be good value.
I asked Mike if I could keep the paper copies of the menu, and he said he had to get permission for this. I did not get a response to the request. The same reply came to the request for a copy of the laminated menu. No reply was received but the Manager Kurt Henderson brought it to the table, being proactive in giving me the new menu effective 2 September. This was the only interaction I had with him, even though he could see me – no one was interested in how I enjoyed my meal, despite Mike seeing me making notes. I felt that the manager had little control over his staff – the waiters were huddled in a group, chatting, and I had to request a menu for the dessert, and a bill – nothing came proactively.
I noticed that the prices between the menu of 1 September, and that of the new menu, had decreased for almost all the dishes at A Tavola, with the exception of those for the desserts. I called the restaurant the following day, and owner GianCarlo Pironi’s ‘buon giorno’ was welcoming and friendly, very different to what I had experienced the evening before in his restaurant. He confirmed that the price reductions will hold for the time to come, as their supplier of Italian foods has managed to negotiate good deals with their suppliers, and therefore they could reduce their food prices – compliments to the chef for passing this price benefit on to the A Tavola customers!
With the introduction of the new menu, it would appear that the Speciality menu will fall away, as some of the dishes on it have been added to the new menu. Antipasti dishes have come down in price by around R10 a starter, and start at R42 for Zucchini Fritti, up to R76 for a platter of parma ham, salame, mortadella, coppa, grilled vegetables, olives, brushetta and tomato. In the Insalata section prices have come down by up to R14 for the calamari salad. Most salads cost R58. In the Primi section the pasta dishes have not come down much, and sound expensive in starting from R64 for Penne Arrabiata, Penne Napoli and Spaghetti Aglio Olio e Peperoncino, up to R92 for seafood pasta Linguine Marinara. In the Secondi section prices have been reduced by R10, and now cost R 115 for almost all the dishes (mainly veal). In the Dolci section desserts cost between R38 – R48, and the Tiramisu (an absolute weakness of mine) I ordered was most disappointing – I barely tasted the liqueur, and it seemed terribly dry, with little mascarpone cream. I did like the chunky chocolate chips at the top of the dessert. It tasted pre-prepared, without love. A cheese platter for two costs R78 and gelato costs R38 (number of scoops not indicated). The cappuccino came as a flat white instead of with froth, and when I questioned Mike about this, he said that this is the way it is made, take it or leave it!
The winelist offers Prosecco at R190, or local Simonsig Kaapse Vonkel at R165. Food & Wine Guru Michael Olivier recommends Tierhoek Chenin Blanc on the winelist, at R140 a bottle and R46 per glass. Other white wines include Haute Cabriere, Flagstone Viognier; De Grendel, Iona, and Paul Cluver Sauvignon Blanc; and Jordan Unoaked and Doolhoof Chardonnay, none more expensive that R165. Red wines on the list range from Cederberg’s Cape Atlantic Merlot, at R115, to Morgenster Tosca blend at R245. Five whites and five reds are offered by-the-glass. Two Italian white and three red wines are offered, at under R 200 each. Certain wines have been crossed off the winelist – as it is a photocopy, it is unforgivable that the list was not revised and issued without corrections. No vintages are specified nor are the wines described. The winelist promises that the red wines are ‘cooled’ at 15 C, something I have never seen on a winelist before, but is commendable, says Graham Beck’s Pieter Ferreira.
When I paid for the meal in cash, R 30 more than the bill, I expected my change to be brought to the table. I had to ask Mike to bring it to me, lest he thought that I was giving him an ueber-generous tip. He came to the table sulking, and I asked him why he had not brought the change. He then let rip at me, saying he had not expected a tip, as I had been ‘impossible’, ‘shutting him out’. I explained to him that I had found his service to be absolutely reactive, and that he could not make an assumption about a tip, unless told to keep the change. This was a bad note on which to leave the restaurant – Manager Kurt made no attempt to reprimand the waiter for his rudeness.
I won’t be back at A Tavola, given its rude staff (even though owner GianCarlo sounded really nice over the phone), its prices (even though they have reduced many of their menu items, off a high base), and average food.
POSTSCRIPT 11/4/13: We received this e-mail today, clarifying that Giancarlo Pironi is not involved in the restaurant, and has not been for a long time: ‘I would like you to cancel the blog associating me with A Tavola restaurant in Claremont. Yes is true that I started A Tavola Restaurant in december 2009 together with Kurt and David, but I left the partnership few months after the opening. My Name is still used up to today by A Tavola, but now that I am about to begin a new venture in food I don’t want to confuse my future clients. Thanking you in advance for your kind understanding I wish you all the best in the future. Warm regards. Giancarlo Pironi’.
A Tavola, Shop 1, Library Square, Wilderness Road, Claremont (opposite Kingsbury Hospital, off Main Road). Tel (021) 671-1763. www.atavola.co.za. Lunches Monday – Friday 12h00 – 15h00, Dinners Monday – Saturday 18h00 – 22h00. Closed on Sundays and public holidays. On Mondays the pasta dishes in the Primi section of the menu cost half price.
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com