Tonight I joined a friend for dinner at his new favorite restaurant, Tamarine in Palo Alto. Opened seven weeks ago by the family that owns the Vung Tau group of restaurants in the South Bay, this is billed as contemporary Vietnamese with "light, subtle, elegant" intense flavors and fragrances. While the Vung Tau restaurants are considered some of the most authentic in the area and have won kudos from many chowhounds, Tamarine is positioned to make Vietnamese cuisine more accessible to less adventurous, non-Asian diners and features dishes developed especially for this new market. That set off a bunch of warning lights in my head, but I tried to keep an open mind.
We walked in at 7:30pm without reservations. About a third of the floor space is devoted to a bar area, which was lively with tech survivors. The ratio seemed to be about 10:1, males to females. The long dining room is divided by a heavy drape, and soothing Vietnamese art pieces add color. I was happy to see Riedel stemware on the tables.
Even though the restaurant has been open less than two months, Vince had already tried nearly all the dishes and we went with his top picks tonight. He has established himself as a regular here, introducing me to the management, so the service we experienced may not be typical. The proprietress, Anne, stopped by our table a few times, as did the sommelier, Will.
The meal format is small plates to be shared family style. The small plates are actually not so small and are equivalent to an entrée size. One menu feature that caught my eye were a selection of various flavor infused rices priced at $2 per serving. These are presented in fresh banana leaves folded into steamer containers.
Our choices for tonight included
Wild tea leaf tuna, $8 A fresh tea leaf was topped with chopped ahi tuna, garlic, roasted coconut and other aromatics; four pieces to an order. Our server instructed us to fold them over like a taco and eat out of hand, but each was only a mouthful providing a delicate wash of flavor. Vince described these as palate cleansers to start the meal. I was surprised at how tender the tea leaves were. This was a fine match with a Kamptal Grüner Veltliner from the wines by the glass list.
Ha Long Bay Soup, $10 A beautiful pale green asparagus, coconut milk and chicken soup base held four plump crab won ton dumplings. The crab in the stuffing was juicy and not overcooked, but I though the sweetness of the coconut milk overwhelmed the crabs own fresh sweet taste. I liked the lemongrass and lime accents, but these were not enough to balance the overall sweetness of this dish. I appreciated that our server automatically brought two smaller bowls for us to share one order. The coconutty flavors were particularly synergistic with the Pezzi-King Sonoma County Chardonnay Vince had brought.
Salt and Pepper Calamari, $15 This was Vinces favorite dish, although he didnt think tonights was as good as the other times. The breading was not as light and dry nor as greaseless as his prior experience, but we still enjoyed it. The thick and tender squid were scored to open up in petals when its cooked. There were no tentacles on the dish to frighten the timid. In addition to the seasoned breading, a light sauce of garlic, butter and chili add another layer of flavor. Spring onions were stir-fried with the mix, and the combination of the melted onions with the crispy tender squid in the mouth was addictive. This was great with the Grüner Veltliner too.
Earth Pot Catfish, $15 The thick cross-cut rounds of skinless and boneless catfish were coated on the edges with coarse ground black pepper. Even though cooked without the bones, the sauce was rich with fish gelatin, plenty of garlic, and caramelized flavors. Not quite as dark and dusky as some other versions, this lightened style was still plenty tasty. The fish was a bit overcooked, showing more firmness and less of the buttery softness of this freshwater fish at its best. Our server suggested the plain steamed jasmine rice, $1, as an accompaniment for the intense sauce.
Shaking Beef, $19 This was my favorite dish really wakes up the mouth! The Angus tenderloin was crusty and well-seared, medium rare and very tender except for a few pieces with an annoying line of inedible white gristle. Prepared with less butter than other versions, the beefy flavors, juicy vinaigrette and black pepper make a direct hit on the palate and I didnt miss the richness of butterfat. Served on a bed of fresh watercress and sliced tomatoes with sauteed onions. We ordered the light green-tinged pandan rice, $2, aromatic with pandan and a bit of cilantro. We enjoyed this with the Rex Hill Willamette Valley Pinot Gris that Vince brought.
Wok Pho Noodles, $11 I thought this was the weakest of the bunch, basically a plate of beef and broccoli chow fun for twice the price and half the flavor. Fresh rice noodles were tossed with beef slices, gai lan, and scrambled eggs. The noodles were too soft and not seared, and the beef was dry and coarsely textured. Dull, dull, dull.
We protested that we were too stuffed for dessert, but after hearing our server recite the litany, I had to try the housemade lychee sorbet, $6.50. An excellent decision! This was finely textured and the essence of lychee. We also had the Grand Marnier chocolate pot de crème, $6.50. While pleasing, I thought it would have been better a bit sweeter. The oranges sections served alongside were not as juicy and sweet as they should be.
When our desserts arrived, our server asked for feedback on the meal and I gave him my honest pros and cons. The one dish I wanted to try but didnt was the green curry scallops with three squashes (kabocha, zucchini and banana), and he recommended it highly.
Our server and a team of bussers hovered over our table. As mentioned above, Anne stopped by our table a number of times. At one point we had kidded her that this was the Nordstrom of South Bay Vietnamese restaurants, and she stated that like Nordstrom, we should return anything were not happy with.
With a 20+% tip, our total bill came to $102. This included $6.75 for a bottle of Voss still water from Norway. Wed been comped on the $20 corkage for the 2 bottles of wine we brought in and the $7 glass of GV. Our server had also taken the soup and the noodles ($21) off our bill. That was quite unexpected, as Id been gentle in my criticism. The managements definitely interested in feedback and it pays to be honest. Tamarines a welcome addition to the local dining scene even at full tariff.
546 University Ave.