We have this little section on EatJackson called “worth the drive”… some are closer, some require a bit more of that precious gasoline but I will contend that this experience indeed, is worth the drive. I met Chef Robert St. John in a happenstance meeting at BRAVO! Italian Restaurant in Jackson nearly a year ago. I’m fairly new to the real “food scene” but have been eating for years (as most of you who have met me may already know.) Chef Robert St. John is one of our Mississippi hero’s with his world class food and great writing. He’s done it again with his incredible team that he has pulled together. Last night, we were able to time a trip through Hattiesburg just right for a late dinner. I’ve been watching Tabella unfold on Facebook for months and was thrilled to be able to visit just four weeks after it opened.
When we walked in the door, and I took in the vibe, I stopped and sent a text to Robert St. John… “haven’t had a bite of food but the atmosphere here is a grand slam home run!” It was a truly unique and comfortable – yet pristine experience. The “community table” inside the door had former strangers sitting together and there wasn’t a spare seat to be had. There were copper pots hanging from a pot rack, and the decor was Italian yet not so crazy that you had to order with an accent or try too hard to figure out what to order. After all, in my experience – the greatest restaurants are ones where you feel comfortable and at home in the surroundings. I’ve been around the country a few times and this place reminds me of a neighborhood in Philly where we ate at a “mom & pop” Italian place. It has a unique blend of comfort and casual with a menu that’s at a great price point for families.
We were seated and quickly greeted by our server Scott. Scott was a fireball all night long, and while I’m not usually too hard on the servers, I had a little fun at his expense. His vigor and excitement for the place was second to none. He told me that this was a Robert St. John creation, and while I was quizzing him on who that was, RSJ appeared at our table. Knowing that I was ribbing him a bit, he laughed and disappeared. The fun for the night was still to come. Robert was running around, working the room and then back in the kitchen where I got a mini-tour to see how the food was prepared. Turns out that “scratch Italian” fare means that they buy ingredients and actually MAKE their dishes from scratch. A novel concept in this day and age, it was easy to tell as we scratched the surface of the menu.
I started off with the Meatball Slider app. It had been mentioned several times and Robert insisted that I try that one for starters. Wow. Was it ever good. The home made bun had been slightly toasted and a thin sheen of olive oil across the top. I don’t know if this was intentional or not, but who cares – it created the faintest crunch, to go with a juicy meatball that was without a doubt the best I’ve ever had. It was a mere $3 for the meatball slider. Unreal. I could have just gone back to the bullpen with one more of those. The bride, meanwhile had ordered the house salad, with the dressing on the side. Scott, our friendly waiter brought it out, with a 2nd grade message from the kitchen. “Robert says that you put a knife in his heart ordering the dressing on the side!” Laughing, she splashed a little dressing on the absolutely gorgeous leaves in the bowl and then I heard an exclamation from across the table. I put down the meatball for a moment and demanded a taste, I agreed it was fantastic. She sent a message back to Robert in the kitchen. “You were right, the dressing is amazing.” Robert St. John later told me “It’s a vinaigrette. I took a dressing I remembered eating as a kid and reworked it for an Italian Restaurant. Apple Cider Vinegar, tarragon vinegar, garlic, Romano cheese, salt, pepper and extra virgin [olive oil].”
Meanwhile Scott is trying to get us to decide on an entree… So many choices, one visit and I’m half full from the meatball… Finally I said, “ask RSJ what he wants us to try.” Scott quipped back “Betcha a hundred bucks he says the Lobster Ravioli.” I didn’t take his bet, but I was delivered the Crawfish and Mushroom Ravioli dish with delightful ravioli. It had mushrooms, flakes of delicious cheese and crunchy bits of prosciutto in it. There were 4 homemade ravioli nestled in the sauce along with juicy crawfish. I didn’t get a ton of “zing” of flavor from the crawfish, but I’ll admit… I like mine a touch more spicy than these. They worked well in the dish however.
Food: A menu created by a “World Class Eater” is hard to critique. Everything I had was delicious and better than the comparable dish at any place I might go instead. It’s all at a great price point and I can appreciate that. The desserts and the meatball slider were my favorite of all. We tried both the Lemontini Cheesecake and the Spumoni were to die for. In fact, if you tried to get my cheesecake I’d probably file a restraining order against you. It was awesome. I actually took a few bites, and brought the rest home and just finished it off moments ago. The lemon and cream cheese flavors work so well in this thing that it’s already a huge hit.
Atmosphere: It’s hard to get a great vibe in a previously used location. I’ve seen it fail dozens of times. This, however, was an incredible creation. When you walk in the doors you just feel something special. It’s loud, but not such that you can’t hear. The tables are such that you aren’t on full display to the entire restaurant and the little subtle hints of something more – like the Italian opera playing in the mens’ restroom. It’s Italian, but in a believable, Mississippi sort of way. The walls double as wine storage and there must be hundreds and hundreds of bottles to chose from. The whole thing works in such a believable Italian manner that I was highly impressed.
Service: I told Scott that I was going to have to make him a celebrity on the website. He did a great job of keeping refills full, and moving things along quite well. He was borderline a little too chatty, but I probably egged him on a bit. I sometimes do that with a bit too much banter. I think overall you’ll find the New South Restaurant Group standards are still in place across the board and that better than average service at Tabella is par for the course.