Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Exotic Comforts of Tamarine

546 University Avenue
Palo Alto, CA 94301
(650)325-8500
Chef Tammy Huynh
Lunch weekdays
Dinner nightly

Tamarine on Urbanspoon

Update: November 2006
The dishes are still relatively solid but have lost the delicate finesse that made Tamarine stand out. The crab dumplings in Ha Long Bay Soup were gummy and overpeppered, and the coconut milk broth was too sweet and thick and also too sour from the vinegary fish sauce. The shaking beef was not as tender as they used to be, and the bed of watercress salad and picked onions, previously lightly dressed and highlighting the beef, seemed to be a throway like dried parsley garnish. The banana beignets for dessert, however, were crunchy outside and creamy inside with the just right amount of sweetness.

The chips on the edges of the previously elegant green plates were a sign that the attention to detail that made this place special is now lacking.

Last tried: January 2006
Tamarine has managed to strike exactly the right balance between Silicon Valley casual and Bay Area food snob in everything from its layout and decor to its wine list. The dark wood, frosted windows, and deep green velvet curtains and upholstery create a refined yet cozy atmosphere. The cocktail lounge area, including a full bar and large barside table with barstools for snacking on the small plate dishes (or enjoying a full dinner) with post-work drinks, provide an informal touch.

Tamarine's wine list is exceptional, with a large number of selections available by the glass, tailored to match the Vietnamese flavors and spices of the menu, whether seafood, poultry, meat or vegetable. They are also quality wines with great acidity that anyone would enjoy quaffing alone.

Where Tamarine truly excels is in the exotic yet comforting cuisine expertly turned out by Chef Tammy Huynh, with her finely-honed sense of harmonizing the unusual with the familiar in the various spices, flavors, and textures present in every small and large plate on the menu. The portions of both the small and large plates are well-sized. They are comfortably ample for people to share tastes (or not), but a single diner could also decide to sample several different dishes without getting overly stuffed.

We started with the bahn ma roti, pan-fried triangles of unleavened bread that is chewy with flaky edges and comes with a kicky yellow curry dip and a thick basil bean dip. They disappeared from the table faster than a bag of potato chips at a superbowl party. Given how ubiquitous tuna tartare appetizers are, I am impressed when a chef can give it new life. Huynh spices it up with almost invisible bits of chopped chili and adds crunch with cucumber pieces. The generous mound of pink Big eye tuna is served in a hollowed out coconut, which imparts yet another layer of aroma and flavors, along with a pile of fried flaky wonton chips on the side. The spring rolls, with a filling of shrimp, pork, mint, and lettuce, are not deep fried but wrapped in soft translucent rice paper and presented with a tangy hoisin sauce and garnished with chopped peanuts. Although I personally find the mint to be a bit overwhelming, others eagerly scarfed them up.

Of the large plates, the shaking beef, tender chunks of grilled filet mignon marinated in garlic and spices and presented on a bed of watercress with slices of radish and red onion, is substantial enough to satisfy any carnivore and yet so tantalizing in flavor that I never tire of ordering it. If the shaking beef is not Tamarine's signature dish, it should be. The tri-squash scallop curry is another must-have dish. The seared scallops floating in the curry had absorbed the curry flavors without being overcooked in the slightest, and the creamy squash chunks added depth to the warm and mildy spicy broth. With a bowl of aromatic jasmine rice, this is Vietnamese comfort food. The Tamarine prawns, jumbo grilled prawns with tamarind sauce, is the only dish that I was not crazy about. While they are not bad, I personally have never cared for unpeeled shrimp, as all of the flavor seems to stay on the peel and never on the prawns, and this one is no exception. In contrast, the ruby duck-- perfectly cooked tender slices of muscovy duck breast served with braised chicory and fig sauce-- is one of the best duck dishes I have encountered in any restaurant.

The excellence of Tamarine falters a bit with the desserts when the kitchen veers too far from its Asian-based expertise. The cranberry cheesecake was somewhat dry and not sweet enough, and the cranberry sauce seemed more of an afterthought to add color, as opposed to complementing any flavor. The profiteroles were fine but not exceptional as the ice cream was too soft and the pastry puff shell a bit bland. I did quite enjoy the banana beignets, which are sweet and crispy, and the chocolate ganache wontons, which are so rich and decadent that I did not mind that they were a little greasy (that may be unavoidable from the combination of chocolate and deep frying wonton skins). I really do wish that Tamarine would start serving real coffee, in addition to the Vietnamese coffee that is brewed with sweetened condensed milk, which is more of a dessert by itself.

Having experienced Huynh's cuisine on numerous visits, each of which has been consistently first-rate, I can see why Tamarine has been a roaring success in a location where two previous restaurants have failed. I am intrigued to see how Bong Su, Tamarine's sister restaurant scheduled to open in February 2006 in San Francisco, will be (and whether that will affect the quality of Tamarine).

2 comments:

paul said...

Excellent blog! I just linked to your review of Tamarine and I found your conclusions on Tres Agaves similar to mine. I’m headed to Ame Saturday, so I hope that our experience matches yours. Keep up the great work.

Finicky said...

Thanks, Paul. I think Ame has great potential. Hope you enjoy and come visit again to compare any other dining experiences.

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