Tamarine Restaurant in downtown Palo Alto is the sort of establishment which, depending on your background, will either tempt or raise a few eyebrows when you read about its ‘Modern Vietnamese’ offerings. Having travelled a fair bit, I’ve learned (often the hard way) that the best way to identify a restaurant serving up a cuisine ‘authentic’ to its roots is to gauge the number of diners from said cuisine in the restaurant. Thus, my eyes are on the lookout for Japanese diners at the chef’s bar in a Sushi restaurant, bearded Middle Eastern men in a Kebab diner and Chinese folks in a Cantonese/Szechuan restaurant. This especially so after an encounter with an esteemed ‘Singaporean’ restaurant in the Bay Area where, in a bout of culinary homesickness for Singaporean food, we dined, to our utter disappointment. While the menu items were all familiar, the final dishes were American adaptations gone wrong, making for a highly disappointing meal. After that experience, M and I have been extra vigilant in the ‘Asian’ restaurants we dine at, not wanting to subject ourselves yet again to the clutches of grossly inauthentic cuisine.
So it was with a real relief to discover Tamarine’s successful modernization of Vietnamese cuisine, courtesy of Executive Chef Tammy Huynh‘s creativity and willingness to experiment in the kitchen. Traditional ingredients – cilantro, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, tamarind, chilies – continue to play their supporting roles across the 39 different menu items, but in an updated and confident fashion that makes for a delicious dining experience, and a relaxed introduction to Vietnamese cuisine. Proprietor Anne Le Ziblatt, hailing from the Vung Tau family of restaurateurs, understood how intimidating it could be to sample ethnic cuisines for the first time, and sought to create an environment conducive for gourmet exploration. Stepping through the doors from University Avenue, Tamarine, with its dark wood and jade green accents, evokes a distinctively classy and sophisticated vibe. You certainly don’t want to turn up in flip flops and hoodies, but you’d be equally out of place in an Alexander McQueen getup.
On a recent visit, we started off the evening with one of Tamarine’s specialty cocktails. M had the Tamarine Mojito, while I ignored my affinity for lime and rum, opting instead for the White Peach Sangria with white wine, Cointreau, Mathilde Peach liquor, Hangar One blossom peach puree and a splash of Prosecco. Quite surprisingly, I found the drink fairly ordinary and had a hard time trying to detect any peaches in the drink. The Mojito, on the other hand, with Ten Cane rum, fresh mango, muddled mint and lime, was superb as usual: tangy and refreshing, without being overly sweet.
Dishes are served ‘family-style’ at Tamarine, and although the menu is divided into Starters, Soups/Salads/Noodles, Entrees, Sides and Rice, you have complete flexibility to create your own dinner with an assortment of dishes, even dining tapas-style by ordering starters and salads if you wish.
We began dinner with a serving of the Ha Long Bay Soup, a warm and comforting starter featuring wontons packed with fresh crab meat and served in a cilantro and coconut milk-infused consommé. The flavors were delicate, and the texture of the wonton skins were tender enough to keep their contents snugly nestled without being too thick. This was an excellent warm-up for the next two starters we had, a Honey Roasted Quail stuffed with mushroom sticky rice drizzled with a plum wine reduction, and Shrimp Cupcakes, where baby prawns are served in crisp rice cakes, garnished with green onions and served with Vietnamese nuoc cham. The quail was finger-licking delightful (yes we polished it off with our hands), with tender slivers of meat literally falling off the bone. The sticky rice and bed of watercress that came along with the quail rounded the dish out perfectly. The shrimp cupcakes, on the other hand, were rather unremarkable. I liked the textural contrast between the crisp rice cakes and tender shrimp, but there was little to go on in terms of flavor, even with the side of nuoc cham, which we found really mild.
The real star of the night, however, was the Kaffir Lime Snapper that we ordered to share, with a side of rice. Fried to a crisp, the fish is served with a generous topping of green and red peppers, mushrooms, onions and water spinach, all drenched in a tamarind, kaffir lime and lemongrass sauce. This was by far, my favorite dish for two reasons:
First, the sauce was actually spicy. Not the “Get-me-an-ice-truck-I’m-on-fire” spicy, but it does have a heat that gradually intensifies, making it the perfect accompaniment for many bites of Jasmine rice.
Second, although it was filleted prior to cooking, the fish was served whole: head, tails, bones and all. With a dominant American clientele, and therefore one that is more accustomed to consuming fish as a faceless filet, Tamarine’s decision to offer this item on its menu, in this form, reflects a confidence in the sophistication of their diners. By serving fish the way it is traditionally done in Asia, Tamarine brings authenticity to the table, alongside an innovative approach to traditional ingredients.
It is this successful marriage of authenticity and innovation that earned Tamarine a place among Forbes’ Top 10 Power Dining Spots’ , and a 3-star rating from the San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant critic, Michael Bauer. It’s definitely a combination that appeals to us, because when you dine at Tamarine, you’re not just ‘eating Vietnamese’ for the evening. You’re allowing yourself to sample an evolving cuisine, at once both familiar and new. It’s a fine balance that’s challenging to achieve, but judging by the many tables of contented diners on our last visit on a Thursday evening, it is one that Tamarine has succeeded at. We didn’t get a chance to sample their desserts on this visit, but you can bet that I’m definitely saving space for sweet treats on our next meal.
546 University Avenue (between Webster and Cowper Streets)
Palo Alto, CA 94301
Tel: (650) 325-8500
Reservations highly recommended.