Emma Tresemer
Tabla
200 NE 28th
238-3777

When it comes to food, few things taste better than a bargain: A two-dollar ground steak burger at Ringside; wallet-friendly eight-dollar pasta dishes at Il Piatto; and throughout April, the restaurant Tabla's amazing three-course gourmet dinner for an astoundingly cheap 20 bucks.

This is a culinary gift for couples who are tight on cash, friends who want to treat themselves, and people who'd like to splurge on a great bottle of wine--this is a meal worthy of an occasion. For the first course Tabla generously offers you a choice of appetizers from buttery Willapa Bay steamer clams, to a moist, sage-spiked butternut squash flan, to an earthy organic beet salad with baby greens, Dijon mustard, and sherry vinegar.

The second, or pasta course, has a wealth of mouth-watering options, although if you're hungry, skip the raviolis--the servings are miniscule. Instead, dig into the beautiful purple squid ink spaghetti, topped with meaty, garlicky, grilled sea scallops; or the deliciously stewy, thick cut pappardelle with rabbit ragu. The pappardelle is made in house, and goes wonderfully with the tender, flavorful rabbit, made with a porcini mushroom, white wine, tomato, and vegetable sauce. Also, for the less adventurous, the tarajin is simple and tasty, a pile of homemade pasta topped with creamy sage or truffle butter.

After you're finished licking the amazing pasta sauce off your plate, you're ready for the main course. I should note that none of the entree dishes are vegetarian, so if you don't eat meat or fish you can ask for Tabla's tapas menu or order a salad and large pasta dish. For carnivores, however, the list is almost too hard to choose from. I was torn between the grilled striper marlin--prepared with garlic, tomato, olives, and braised leeks--and the Cascade Natural NY strip steak, served with succulent rosemary potatoes and long stalks of grilled asparagus. I hadn't been out to a fancy dinner for a while, so of course I chose the steak, which was delicious, if a bit overcooked.

Also intriguing is the duck confit, a dish that requires a rather intensive marinating process and produces a rich, tender, flavorful leg of meat. Along with the duck comes a smooth, airy pile of creamy whipped potatoes, which I couldn't help but eat off my tablemate's plate. Other tempting options include a seafood-stocked stew made with onions, peppers, tomatoes, crushed almonds, clams, mussels, fish, and prawns, and the free-range turkey breast stuffed with pears, chestnuts, and sausage, then wrapped in bacon--turkey breast has never been so decadent. Or, if you're a fan of chicken, Tabla offers a leg braised with saffron and mint and a risotto dish made with smoked pork and mushrooms.

While Tabla's three-course dinner is undoubtedly not the most food you can get for your money, that's not what's important. Instead of shoveling it in, you'll want to casually labor over each dish, tasting the complex flavors and filling the spaces with sips of wine. And when dinner's over, you'll feel perfectly sated, perhaps a little drunk, and only a tiny bit poorer.

Tabla's three-course dinner runs through April and tentatively beyond.