The south bay is one of the top spots in the country for adventurous eaters. Ask the techies in Sunnyvale who compile obsessively detailed lists of the area’s top south Indian restaurants, or the thrill seekers both Korean and not who refuse to back down from stinky tofu.
It makes for a lively local culinary culture, but one downside is that sometimes “adventurous” becomes equated with “extreme,” and authenticity always a prized principle to an ambitious foodie gets equated with hole-in-the-wall ethnic dives.
Even though it’s true that many of Silicon Valley’s best culinary finds can be found in out-of-the-way strip malls, that oversimplification of local culture is a shame if it means upscale restaurants and chefs don’t get the recognition they deserve for their contributions to adventurous eating locally.
Such is the case with Tamarine’s Vietnamese menu and its executive chef, Tammy Huynh. One could argue that given Tamarine’s success with the business crowd and general Palo Alto elite there’s even a “power lunch” menu featuring some of the menu favorites it hasn’t exactly been overlooked.
And yet, while Charles Phan of San Francisco’s Slanted Door the closest comparable restaurant to Tamarine in the Bay Area is practically a household name among foodies, what Huynh has accomplished at Tamarine has received a fraction of the attention.
Creativity moves at a frenetic pace at Tamarine; most dishes are lucky to last a few months, despite its large menu, and on a recent visit, several of the dishes I sampled had been added within the last two months. The geographical reach of the menu is fascinating, as well; despite being rooted solidly in Vietnamese culinary tradition (itself a dynamic territory), there are tastes from India, Thailand and across South Asia, as well as the West. Yes, it qualifies as fusion (though not the rarely-used-correctly “pan-Asian”), but with Huynh’s clarity of vision the dishes always seemed cohesive and authentic in tone and taste, never over-reaching or gimmicky.
It is interesting to consider how Tamarine’s dishes match up to Slanted Door’s, and on several, they go absolutely toe-to-toe. Phan may have the edge on his signature dishes like shaking beef (Tamarine’s isn’t quite as complex or rich, though it is still quite good), but in certain areas, Palo Alto’s own has the edge. The clay pot cod, for instance, surpasses any competition with its sweet succulence, and is a must-have.
Other highlights include the newest item on the menu, the lamb pot stickers. An unusual concept, to be sure, they live up to a stunning presentation with a wrapper so light it threatens to melt away on contact, a subtle pomegranate oil and a wonderful lamb center for which it’s impossible to be fully prepared. Meanwhile, the duck is pure South Asian comfort food, peppery and so tender it’s almost a pat. Served with duck confit and greens, it has a warm harvest feel.
Another new menu item, the beef short-rib rendang, offers a delicious detour through Thai flavors with its currylike sauce. The cassava bassi banks the menu through south India, basically a dosa donut with a coconut chutney for dunking. One of the menu items that’s managed to last for an extended run, the basil tofu is an excellent vegetarian option. Crisp but still porous enough to absorb the sweet and savory soy around it, Tamarine’s tofu takes on what I like to call a “flavor cube” quality when given a little time to soak up its surroundings. The wok-fired garlic noodles show off a Chinese influence and are preferable to the crab and garlic noodles, which are rather bland despite a generous portion of crab.
For dessert, the sticky toffee pudding is exquisite not too sweet and exactly the right amount of sticky, toffee and pudding.
The lunch and dinner menus are more or less identical, though there are specials. The restaurant’s interior blends a stark and practical design with an obvious love and knowledge of art. And the service was excellent at each visit, with a waitstaff that knows the menu backward and forward and is able to help diners shape a whole experience with various combinations of dishes.