A grilled veal chop on a base of pappardelle with mushroom Bolognese and veal jus is one of the more expensive entrees at Tavolo.
A grilled veal chop on a base of pappardelle with mushroom Bolognese and veal jus is one of the more expensive entrees at Tavolo.

A talented chef schooled in top area eateries brings updated Italian fare to grateful diners in an underserved suburb.

Posted: August 29, 2010

In the fine-dining wilderness of the near suburbs that cradle Northeast Philadelphia, it wouldn't take much for a chef of Augusto Jalon's skill to find a band of grateful patrons.

One of them, a happy silver-haired gent on his way out of the hexagonal dining room at Tavolo in Huntingdon Valley, paused in the parking lot to assure me as I headed in: "It's always excellent."

The Ecuadorean-born Jalon, 47, clearly has an outgoing personality to stoke such a loyal following, a natural warmth that extends to his solicitous (albeit sometimes stiff) service crew, run by his business partner, Juan Monroy. And he has a track record to warrant such allegiance. Trained at the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College, he earned his Italian stripes at the ground level in local standbys such as Il Pastaio, La Veranda, and Il Cantuccio before launching Augusto's, his globally influenced 50-seat BYOB in Warminster, seven years ago.

It speaks to Jalon's seriousness and culinary curiosity that three years after establishing Augusto's as a local destination, he dedicated his off-days to improving his game by working for free at other restaurants he admired. At Le Bec-Fin, Jalon's longtime dream kitchen, he spent every Monday for two years accompanying then-chef Pierre Calmels to the early-morning market, studying the art of sauces, and filling in where needed.

A more recent and significantly briefer stint helping out at Osteria has been clearly influential in his approach to the updated Italian menu at Tavolo, the larger second restaurant he opened in September in the former Stefano's, where he also once cooked.

While Tavolo's kitchen, where he now divides his time with Augusto's, does not approach the scope or sophistication of Osteria's, some of its best dishes are rooted in its well-crafted fresh pastas. At least one is a direct homage to Marc Vetri's influence, an elegant plate of casoncelli, hand-crimped dumplings stuffed with minced meats and almond biscotti, glazed with sage-brown butter and scattered with chips of shaved asparagus. Tender ravioli filled with creamy goat cheese come splashed in a bright orange essence distilled from sun-dried tomatoes and white wine.

Snappy ribbons of pappardelle tangle in a light, brothy sauce with savory crumbles of Italian sausage and wilted spinach. In another dish, blended with a rich mushroom Bolognese and drizzles of veal jus, the pappardelle makes a hearty base for a succulent rib-cut veal chop grilled and basted to decadent perfection. At $34.50, that chop is one of the more expensive items on the menu. Still, with entrees hovering in the mid-$20s, Tavolo is less shy than many city restaurants these days about charging such pre-recession fine-dining prices.

I suspect this well-to-do and charming Montco village, which grew accustomed to classic Italian fare in this space during its tenure as Stefano's (years ago, this house was reportedly the weekend getaway of baseball legend Jimmie Foxx), is more accepting of the upscale fees as long as the kitchen delivers.

And for the most part, these dishes were built on good ingredients and hearty portions that merited the price. A thick slice of filet mignon came over a puddle of classic red wine demi-glace next to a deeply savory gorgonzola-fennel gratin. An appetizer special brought huge grilled shrimp splashed in brandied cream and posed over a slice of crisped polenta. A moist roulade of bacon-wrapped pork "braciole" stuffed with apples, onions, and sage was paired with a butternut squash risotto that evoked fall comfort - not the midsummer swelter. But it was irresistibly delicious nonetheless.

I can't say the same for the dice-sized gnocchi, which were unfortunately doughy, even though I liked the crunchy touch of shaved almond biscotti on top. A more consistent problem was some of the seafood entrees, which could have used more finesse to rise from simply decent to great. An enormous filet of wild sea bass was overcooked and underseasoned, wasting a Mediterranean flourish of artichoke pesto and the piquance of refined puttanesca. An otherwise respectable seafood risotto brimming with myriad shellfish would have been outstanding had the little scallops not been cooked to bounce like pencil erasers.

A huge piece of salmon was sorely overdone on the first attempt - in part because our friendly but fast-talking waiter never paused his spiel to ask our preference. Moist-centered fish, Jalon tells me, is not the default choice in this cooked-through conservative burb. But the kitchen graciously recooked our salmon, and with its bed of beluga lentils ringed by the tangy richness of a cranberry-infused brown butter, the much-improved second effort was a satisfying take on the bistro classic that I'd happily reorder.

The zesty little lamb meatballs, served with mint pesto beneath a chip of shaved parmesan, are another dish not to miss. So is the "onion brulee" appetizer, an inventive Jalon signature borrowed from Augusto's that is essentially a hollow roasted onion stuffed with a creamy crabcake, perched atop a nest of spaghetti squash, then ringed with thyme-scented butter.

That spaghetti squash makes another notable cameo in the somewhat misnamed but intriguing "scampi." This updated version lacks the garlicky punch implied by the classic dish, but I thoroughly appreciated this lighter take, which substituted the no-carb threads of squash and zucchini laces for pasta, then dabbed the huge grilled shrimp in an herbaceous lemon jam that brought the dish to life. A rigatoni all'amatriciana was purely traditional, with plenty of rendered pancetta and pepper flakes to give it a rustic zest.

When it's time for dessert, Tavolo resorts through a contracted baker to some of the usual cliches. One was a real flop, a soggy-crusted "limoncello" tart filled with gelatinous curd that could have been renamed "lemon-jello." The others - a fluffy tiramisu, creamy ricotta cheesecake, and strawberry-chocolate shortcake called "fragola" - were perfectly adequate.

Still, if Jalon ever follows through on another of his continuing education adventures (those pastry studies he abandoned at the Restaurant School for the opportunity at Le Bec), these desserts could use the upgrade.

For this hungry corner of the fine-dining wilderness, though, Tavolo has already delivered more than enough good flavors to give Jalon more time to make that happen.

Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.

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