I am not the kind of person who automatically write-off restaurants that served upscaled versions of "ethnic" cuisines. I love cheap, simple tacos from a truck, but I also appreciate what places like Maya and Frontera Grill in Chicago are doing. I enjoy bahn mi and huge bowls of cheap pho, yet I also enjoyed the Slanted Door. I like cheap dim sum and Yank Sing. $2 gryos or Kokkari. Pupusas from La Palma or Panchitas #3. All good.
So it came as a bit of a surprise to me, while sharing a meal with friends at Tamarine in Palo Alto, that I began to think to myself "I'd much rather be eating less fancy Vietnamese food somewhere else for a quarter the cost." The room is beautiful, the atmosphere bustling but not overly loud, the service prompt and friendly, the wine list varied, interesting, fairly priced, and well designed for the food (though I was unhappy with our waitress' inability to help me make a choice among several bottles by articulating their differences). Most of the elements of a finer dining experience were in the right place.
But the food just didn't win me over. There was nothing particularly wrong or unpleasant about the food, but it just didn't seem special and good enough to justify the $10 app and $20 entree prices. The word that comes to mind is trepid. It was as though the chef was fearfully holding back from delivering full flavors in each dish: not enough salt, not enough fish sauce, not enough vinegar, not enough spice.
That was basically the case with every dish we ordered:
- shrimp cupcakes,
- green papaya salad (aged beef was pretty good),
- ha long bay soup (which had a nice broth but the crab in the wontons tasted old),
- salt and pepper calamari (good squid but some of the batter was undercooked and pasty),
- St. Jacques scallops (bland scallops),
- southern pork (cooked to medium, nice and tender, but in need of more seasoning)
- curried long beans
- jasmine and hainan rices
Everything is served family style. And while the menu describes the entrees as "small plate," they are pretty substantial.
I did get lucky with the wine; the Berger Gruner Veltliner was a hit around the table and went well with the food.
Desserts are mostly Western. We had two: a warm chocolate cake and chocolate ganache "wontons" with vanilla ice cream. The flavors were all fine, though the large wontons were very tough and difficult to split with a fork. When we finally did succeed in cutting the them, the thin chocolate sauce quickly poured out across the plate.
Tamarine does have a lot of good things going for it. Perhaps if the food prices were lower (say $5/dish less) I would have thought it was worth it. But as it is now, I walked away feeling that foodwise, I'd rather have spent much less and eaten somewhere much less fancy.