Reviewer’s notebook: Tavolo and Sanette’s Karoo Kafe

Much more than pizza in Dorchester, and South African delights in Provincetown

By ROBERT NADEAU | September 13, 2010

JUST ENOUGH SALT: Tavolo has grown from a neighborhood pizza joint to a full-fledged gastropub. The chicken picatta is served with a caper sauce that is just salty enough.
Tavolo snuck under my radar because Chris Douglass, then well-known for Icarus, had made his first Dorchester move with Ashmont Grill, an admitted bistro. Tavolo, three years later, was supposed to be the little neighborhood pizza place down the street. But when I dropped in this summer, the space had been renovated into a large bar/restaurant with retro décor, and the menu had all kinds of entrées, multiple pastas, desserts, and appetizers.

I’m with the program as I sit down and the server parks a carafe of ice water on the table with crusty white bread and a pour of olive oil. What’s that in the olive oil? Salt and pepper, and they just bring out the oil’s best qualities. This is a full-tilt trattoria/bistro/gastropub.
And it’s locovore. My appetizer was “heirloom tomato soup” ($6) with genuine black cherry tomatoes sliced as a garnish, and rich creamy soup base that will ruin Campbell’s for even the most nostalgic. Chicken picatta ($18) is a breaded chicken cutlet, gorgeous if unconventional, with a caper sauce that was — and hardly anyone gets this right — not overly salty. It’s served with “farm potatoes” the size of large marbles and “farm beans,” extra-fresh snap beans (but not the Romano or Blue Lake types with their distinctive flavors that we are getting in the better farmer’s markets).

Tavolo has stayed simple on desserts, offering one or two choices and gelati. I had limoncello pound cake ($6), which was a good, heavy cake, lightly treated with lemon-flavored liqueur, with a thin layer of sweetened ricotta studded with lemon zest. Downtown, you’d pay twice as much.

The beers aren’t up to current gastropub standards, but there are a few for the brew geeks. The wine list is mostly Italian, and I had a fine glass (large glassware, too) of 2008 Scaglioli barbera “Mati” ($9/glass; $36/bottle), a non-appellation blend designed for early drinking with mostly steel-tank wines, and just a little oak-aged. The aroma was wonderfully full, like a young Bordeaux, and it was soft and ready on the palate. Clever, modern winemaking, a good selection for this food. With some of the red-sauce dishes or pizza, one might actually move up to more traditional barbara with more acidity.

Dining alone, I had a seat with a good view of the Red Sox. Tavolo has just enough TV sets, relatively small ones, to track a baseball game without actually watching it. Background music is funk jazz.

Sanette’s Karoo Kafe
I don’t often review in Provincetown, because it’s too far to drive and most restaurants are seasonal, and turn over the entire staff from year to year. For example, since 2006, Babe’s (on 6A in North Truro, next town down) has had remarkably good food of the Middle East and North Africa made by chef-owner Peter Thrasher. But will that happen next year? Who knows?

One of the more stable and unusual restaurants of Provincetown has been Sanette’s Karoo Kafe, possibly the only South African restaurant in New England, and surely in Massachusetts. Sanette Groenewald has been at it for eight years, opening as early as March and staying on some years to Thanksgiving. As other émigrés have found her, the Kafe’s Web site and general store have become crucial sources for her own curry sauces and stew bases. With a new dining room, the restaurant is still semi-cafeteria-style and quite small, but where else can a curious Bay Stater sample a home-style bobotie ($7.75/sandwich; $12.25/entrée), or malva pudding ($4.50)?

The former is a curried meat loaf with a moussaka-like layer of custard or béchamel, here minimized to a topping. (South African curry owes as much to Dutch colonial Malaysia and Indonesia as British India.) Sanette does health food, and has invented a tofu bobotie. That’s one too many fusions for me, but the original, with a plate of yellow rice and a sweet relish, is a fine dinner. Malva pudding, which is sometimes served with a creamy sauce like trifle or tiramisu, is again done as it would be at home, all sweet cake soaked in caramel.

For quick bites or an appetizer, the combo plate ($10.95) gets you two classic South African “beef samosas” ($10.95/entrée), pastry triangles filled with a hotter version of the bobotie curry, a couple of rather mild peri-peri wing segments ($7.55/appetizer a la carte), a pair of golf-ball-size falafel ($7.85/sandwich) also with a bit of curry flavor, and a great invention, “snail Rangoons” ($6.95). These last put an escargot and some cream cheese into a wonton wrapper and then the whole thing into the deep fryer. I like them better than crab Rangoon, and propose applying the idea to local sea snails and whelks.

Sanette gets farmed ostrich for “sattay” and this year has found a way to get antelope burger on the menu. Some of her health food is quite good. We had a vegetarian plate entrée ($10.95) with stuffed grape leaves and homemade hummus ($4.55/a la carte), falafel, and an excellent red tabbouleh ($6.95). But the take-away, return-for, steal-the-recipe hit was “power salad” ($7.95), based on a mixture of quinoa and couscous with a few chickpeas, lentils, and fresh vegetables. I could eat that every day. I might not get powerful, but I would be happy.

A new beer-and-wine license adds fine wines from South Africa, or a bottle of Tusker ($5.50), Kenya’s leading lager, and surely the only beer in the world named for the killer of a founding partner. (It was a rogue elephant.) It’s a light, malty pilsner that hits the spot in hot weather.

Robert Nadeau can be reached