Tuesday, January 26, 2010

TAMARINE - Dinner on the Orient Express...

I found myself at Tamarine, in Palo Alto, on the occasion of my birthday.  Actually, it was for a dinner fete several weeks following the actual date, but its purpose was to celebrate the anniversary of my birth, nonetheless.  What can I say, I'm a lucky girl.  I got a "re-birthday" celebration.

When we arrived we couldn't find the door.  After much stumbling around at several locked glass doors, we noticed a large party conversing against some curtains, and I realized they were blocking the doorway.  We made our way around this rather thoughtless crowd (a story for another day) and into the restaurant.  Our companions had already been seated and waved us over, so I took this opportunity to thoroughly check out the restaurant's decor and furnishings on my way to our table.  My impressions were all extremly positive.  After spending a large part of the past twenty years mounting theatrical productions, I believe I have developed a deep appreciation for the "staging" techniques used in other mediums.  Restaurants that set their stage well can by doing so, successfully enhance the diner's pleasure. This is such a place.  It's a study in light airy fixtures, smooth laquered wood, beautifully laid out spaces, a lovely bar.  It is a setting that evokes adventure, and then there's the name...  Tamarine. 

Tamarine checked her bag for her ticket as she entered the dining car.  She found a seat at the first empty table, the one closest to him.  Her pale skin reflected the moonlight streaming through the window as the train sped through the mountains.  Tamarine tapped her cigarette against the teak of the windowsill.  She flicked her lighter open unsuccessfully.  Her hands were shaking.  She was nervous.  She needed a stiff drink.

I ordered one of the house specialty cocktails.  The Orchid   The drink was pretty and strong.  A winning combination of rum with yuzu. Sweet but not too, too --- mostly really refreshing.  It had an odd familiarity, it tasted like a lightly chilled, not-so-hot toddy.

The waiter brought her the cocktail. She raised the frosty glass to her lips. Was that the scent of cinnamon? Thankfully, the rum would settle her nerves. She took another sip just in case. My, this was good.

Quite a few of the appetizers here looked intriguing, so we ordered several.  The Shrimp Croquettes were a study in crunchy and moist.  Crispy-crusted  meatballs with a soft shrimpy center.  They arrived in a cute basket of noodles that formed a little nest, like some mama bird had just laid several perfect little fuzzy eggs o' goodness.  A well-plated dish. Perhaps a tiny bit prettier than it was tasty, as without sauce, the exterior or these meatballs tended towards the dry side.  Thankfully the addition of a sauce of sweet chilis, enhanced with a pinch of coarse grain mustard gave them a juicy kick.  The heat of the sauce cut the fleshiness of the shrimp and gave the mouthful a better balance.
The next item on our list was a dish called Tammy’s Banh Bap.   A steamed corn cake is steamed in a banana leaf, then a generous helping of pulled pork is layered over the cake and the dish is finished off with a healthy glazing of  chili-coconut cream sauce.  Complex & tasty, I really enjoyed this one.  I can't seem to say no to anything corn, and don't get me started on juicy barbequed pork.  The corncake was sweet, and --- oddly enough --- it had a consistency a bit like rice pilaf.  The starchiness of the cake formed a moist, absorbant base for liquid coating the strands of pork atop it.  The meat was well-seasoned, savory and juicy, it's smoky flavor resonating with hints of black and maybe a bit of red chili pepper.  The juices of the meat mingled with the chili-cream sauce, and all these liquids flowed together, downwards, ending in puddles under the starchy corncake.  Little pools of golden-brown deliciousness.  I found myself chasing the damp bits of the underside with my fork, determined to find the places that were well saturated with all the flavors.  Of course I tried to be nonchalant.  Can't tip the others off or they might fight me for the goodies.

Her appetizer was a platter of small steamed dumplings.  Tamarine wasn't accustomed to Asian food, but she stabbed at one of them tentatively with her fork.  She took her first bite of the spicy pork, and though the flavor was unfamiliar, it was good.  Suddenly she was hungry.

After a moment I regained my composure and turned my attention to taste the Shrimp Cupcakes.  These were one of my favorite treats of the evening. They are served up in lovely little rice cups, to mimic the paper basket of a cupcake.  Sitting inside them are these puff-pastries of shrimp meat, moistened with a mixture of shrimp-coconut milk, green onions and a nice sprinkling of seasoning.  These baby prawn cakes are set off to perfection with a Vietnamese nuoc cham (a slightly sweet dipping sauce of garlic and chili paste) that was ecstasy to the tongue.

The next bite I had was a darling little play on the steamed Pork Bun.  They serve them here in almost exactly the same configuration of flavors, but as an open-faced sandwich with much more pork.  It's fresher, and better.  Thumbs up! 

It is January.  Even in California that means cold winter weather, which in turn, means if I am offered it, I'll order a soup.  We selected two kinds of soup to share between the four of us.  A Kabocha-Corn Soup, which is a creamed mixture of a lovely meaty Japanese winter squash, mingled with corn (again, yay!) and coconut.  They infuse the liquid with lemongrass which gives a nice acidic balance to the creamy, savory broth.  It was hearty and delicious. Squash makes a great soup.  The consistency just lends itself to being creamed and strained to perfection, kabocha has an exceptional sweet flavor naturally, even sweeter than butternut squash. It is similar in texture and flavor to a cross between a pumpkin and a sweet potato.  This starch adds a sugary component to the mix, and the other seasonings blended together to arrive at a very pleasing flavor, balancing the natural sugar well with the other ingredients.  Our second soup was a Ha Long Bay Soup a thin green consomme, with a nice coconut flavor as its strongest component, followed by notes of coriander.  The many lovely crab wontons bobbing about in the broth completed it nicely.

Tamarine sipped her green tea anxiously, allowing the heat of the cup to warm her hands.  Her fingers were stiff with cold.  Maybe she was too close to the window.  She gazed through the glass at the snowy landscape as it flew by.  The gentleman sitting at the table across from her was staring.  She could see his reflection in the mirror.  Tamarine looked away quickly, but she could feel his eyes boring into her.  A self-conscious flush crept up the back of her neck.

Time for our main courses, and they arrived on cue.  One of us ordered the Honey-Soy Roti Chicken a dish whose simplicity had really intrigued me initially. It lived up to those expectations in the mouthful I had.  The chicken was served boneless, and the meat was infused with its own juices, the outer skin crunchy-gold with flecks of char.  All of it drizzled with a lovely sauce of soy, "5-spices" and honey.  Five-spices chicken has long been one of my BH's favorites.  It is said that the Chinese were trying to create a combination consisting of all of the five flavors - sour, bitter, sweet, pungent, and salty.  Each chef has a slightly different variation of the spices used in his or her grouping, so I am not certain which spices were in this dish, but the result was a hit.  The one sour note in this dish might have been the spicy papaya salad.  It was really peppery and almost too hot for me... and I love habanero.  I have to say there wasn't a good balance to the salad, it was just too much heat, not enough flavor. 

I had the Tamarine Prawns which were a "flash-fried" jumbo prawn, bathed in a gently sweet Tamarind sauce over another nest of crispy rice noodles.  The fryer had not made them at all greasy, and the thick sauce was sweet without being cloying.  It clung to the perfectly cooked prawns like a snuggly blanket of flavor. Lovely in color and consistency, this dish was another treat.

Another of us had orderd the Shaking Beef --- it was a terrific dish, chock full of big "bouncy" cubes of beef tenderloin, all sauteed in a sauce of  soy, garlic and onions.  This dish was perhaps my favorite of our mains.  The meat in the bowl arrived with this lovely brown glaze, and to the taste, had a nice texture inside and out.  The resistance of the slightly grilled exterior gagve way to the teeth with a burst of its juicy innards.  The seasoning held a peppery afterbite on the palate, yet it didn't smother the meat.  The flavor of the beef came right through it and for me was the star of the evening.  Mingled with a bit of the watercress salad accompanying my mouthful had a  nice fresh balance when mingled with a bite of beef.

Tamarine tasted her steak.  It was delicious.  The chef had prepared it just the way she liked it.  She dabbed her lips carefully with her napkin, taking care not to smudge her lipstick.  She reached for her drink and knocked her napkin to the floor.  Before she knew it, he had handed it back to her.  Who was he.  Why was he on this train.  What did he want from her?

The Hoisin Lamb Chops were equally good. They do something really amazing with the heartier, dark meats like lamb and beef here.  It's keeps its natural plumpness, and within the juice of the meats (both of them) was a bang, this loud explosion of perfect flavor.  The lamb was done up nicely with a hoisin, garlic and rosemary and served with baby bok choy and sweet potato fries.  The entire meal seemed to me to be the perfect procession of flavors and textures, each dish promising a bounty with scent and artistry of presentation, with all but a tiny few bites subsequently living up to that promise.  

We topped off the evening with a Butterscotch Pot de Creme w Golden Blondies which was a rich ‘pudding’ completely and unabashedly butterscotch.  It had by its side several very moist and chewy blonde brownie bars.  We also shared a Strawberry Lemon parfait a standard parfait, nicely put together with the flavor of the lemon serving to cut the cream and a act as a nice balance to the sweetness of the strawberries.  Both desserts were nice, simple sweet treats.  Nothing amazing, but well prepared.  It was a nice refreshing way to  finish a great meal.
The evening was a celebration, so I decided to go all out.  I ended the evening by ordering a coffee liquer drink that was well, almost too strong. The flavor, instead of coffee, was pretty much all brandy, with a dash of cream floating in the coffee at the center of a big snifter.  I couldn't finish it.  It kinda kicked my ass a little. Just too decadent. 

Everything else was amazing.  It was a lovely evening, and I really enjoyed my companions and our conversation.  I am fairly sure that if you are a fan Thai or other similar Asian cuisines, you will love this place.  Check it out for yourself, and Bon Appetit!
Tamarine pushed her chair away from the table.  She had eaten too much, almost finishing the entire steak.  She was embarrassed.  Ladies didn't eat large quantities in public.  She darted a glance over at the table across from her to see if he was watching.  His chari was empty.  She sighed.  She'd missed her chance to speak to him.  Tamarine rose to return to her sleeping car.  She found herself a little unsteady on her feet.  A voice from behind surprised her.  "May I buy the lady a brandy?"  
Tamarine Restaurant

546 University Avenue
Palo Alto, CA 94301-1901
(650) 325-8500

Table size: perfect for many many dishes
Cost: Expensive
Service: Excellent

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