Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Tamarine, Palo Alto

Once upon a time, the Slanted Door was my destination when I wanted wonderful Vietnamese food in a sleek and sophisticated setting. But in recent years, I -- and other Peninsula foodies -- have been able to get all of the above without driving 30+ miles up Highway 280.

In late 2002, Anne Le (no relation to me) and Tammy Huynh opened Tamarine. The restaurant's elegant decor -- woven floors at the entrance, a slate bar, white linen tablecloths, upholstered chairs, dark-wood paneling -- is a perfect match for their creative and contemporary cuisine.

Diners here come in all makes and models, including couples, large groups of friends (there is a private dining room), families and business associates. I've gone here on Date Night with my husband. This is where we brought the in-laws when they were in town. My sister and I have lunched at Tamarine on numerous occasions. And of course, I've forced San Francisco friends to dine here just so they can understand why we no longer deal with the culinary insanity that the Slanted Door has become.

As with many Asian restaurants, the food is meant to be eaten "family style." Sharing plates means you get to sample a lot more of the items on the menu, so I've got no complaints with that. Although nearly a dozen visits has yet to yield a bad dish, I do have a few favorites:

  • Tuna tartare (chopped Big Eye tuna with cucumber and chili served in half a coconut, along with fried wonton chips);
  • Shrimp rolls (rice paper rolls filled with shrimp, pork and mint -- good by itself, but great when dipped in the hoisin/peanut sauce);
  • Papaya salad (the shredded fruit is highlighted with chewy strips of dried beef that are bursting with flavor);
  • Hoisin lamb chops (as delicious as the lamb is, I think I love the accompanying crispy sweet potato fries even more); and
  • Shaking beef (tender and juicy cubes of filet mignon served on a bed of watercress).

In addition to plain ol' jasmine rice, you can get six -- yes SIX -- other variations. I like the hainan, which is infused with ginger, chicken stock and garlic. And presentation is not overlooked on something as seemingly simple as the rice: each serving is wrapped up in a banana leaf.

To satisfy my sweet tooth, I usually end the meal with an order of the banana beignets; they remind me of the fried bananas my mom made when I was a kid. At Tamarine, you get three piping-hot beignets, with a scoop of coconut ice-cream in the middle. I also can't resist a glass of Vietnamese iced coffee (warning: it's super-strong), which comes to the table with the coffee, ice and condensed milk already combined. (Some restaurants let the coffee drip at your table, so you end up stirring it into the glass of ice and milk yourself -- a process which can sometimes get a little messy.)

The service is generally good from start to finish. The waitstaff is attentive and friendly, plates are changed regularly, and water glasses are refilled before they're empty. Although I have read some diner reviews that indicate that this isn't a good place for kids, I recently brought my four-year-old nephew here and they were very accommodating. They sliced up a bowl of mangoes just for him, brought extra wonton chips, etc.

Tamarine manages to pack them in during lunch (weekdays only) and dinner (daily), so reservations are always a good idea. But, if you can't get a spot in the main dining room, there's a large communal table next to the bar that's ideal for walk-ins. Wherever you end up sitting, be sure to take a spin through the restaurant to check out the artwork gracing the walls. All are auctioned off periodically, with proceeds donated to charity.

While Tamarine has plenty to offer, I especially love knowing that with the gas money I'm saving by getting my Vietnamese food fix in Palo Alto instead of San Francisco, I can splurge on one of the specialty cocktails. Mmm ... lychee martinis ...

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