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Photograph by Troy Bayless

Beauty and the Feast: Bar supplies are turned into art by Tamarine's clever architecture

Designer Dining

Flashy flavors in a gorgeously understated setting define Palo Alto's Tamarine

By Christina Waters

TO SKIP past the prologue: If Tamarine were a book, it would be a Pulitzer Prize winner. And you wouldn't even have to read it to know why. Tamarine is a book you can judge by its cover.

Sleek uncluttered lines--the work of the savvy Engstrom Group (A.P. Stump's; Spago Las Vegas)--join a mesmerizing back bar of natural bamboo and glass to a wall showcasing original artwork. Even the wait staff is sleek, clad in Prada black.

Maybe it was this sartorial sleekness that allowed them to serve us so speedily. Our wine by the glass choices of crisp Lorca Pinot Gris ($7) and spicy Fife Zinfandel ($8) each enhanced a sensational and quickly delivered opening dish of wild tea leaves topped with a dice of ahi sashimi, chiles, lime and ginger ($8). Roasted peanuts and coconut added earthy top notes. "I always wanted to go to Vietnam," Kira said. With its heart-shaped tea leaves and tiny, colorful gems of extreme flavor, this signature dish seemed to make Tamarine's point.

The point, as envisioned at this newest of restaurant ventures from Anne Le and executive chef Tammy Huynh, is contemporary reinvention of the classic and exotic spicing of Southeast Asia. A Saigon bun salad filled out a heavy square platter ($12) with Vietnamese cuisine's greatest flavor hits: grilled pork, glazed shrimp and rice noodles infused with garlic, mint, cilantro and peanuts. Each taste was tinged by clouds of fresh mint.

Steaming hot from the stove, our entrees were gorgeous--and deeply aromatic. A dish of shaking beef offered the potent chemistry of rare Black Angus tenderloin generously arranged on a bed of tart watercress and wokked with cubes of sweet onion and fresh tomato ($19). Crushed bits of star anise added allure to this bright, forward creation. Wokked to order, the fat slices of delicious beef had been dispatched with a deft hand just to the point of crimson rareness, a light vinaigrette infusing each juicy morsel.

A fillet of garlic-and-lemon-grass-blackened sea bass filled up one side of Kira's entree plate, while a glistening salad of ripe mango, fat bean sprouts and transparent bean thread noodles balanced the other side ($21). Serrano chiles kicked in a welcome jolt of heat. The pleasantly geological flavor of cilantro and the texture of roasted peanuts added punch.

The star of our main courses was an emerald plate of curried long beans ($7) loaded with red chile paste firepower and the bitter magic of kaffir lime leaves. These seasonings synergized without overwhelming. Each small-plate entree was complemented by something from the infused-rice possibilities. Lightly perfumed by ginger and garlic, our jasmine rice was presented in a banana-leaf bowl--another astute detail.

For reasons known only to the gods, chocolate is the absolute perfect finish for a meal of Asian flavors. Only a fool, it turns out, would fail to save room for desserts that are as provocative as every other element at this new dining room. Tamarine obliged us with an outrageously silken chocolate Grand Marnier pot de crème. "This is the texture of pudding in my dreams," Kira groaned. And a pretty ginger-coconut flan kept up with our need for sweet, creamy closure (both $6.50). We might have wished for a stronger ginger statement in the flan, but given the spectacular chocolate dish we simply went with the flow.

From a sophisticated cocktail menu and intriguing wine list to electrifying small plates cooked with genuine inspiration, Tamarine is the answer to a seemingly unanswerable question: What is the one thing missing from the Palo Alto dining scene? Add Tamarine to your must-go list, and yes, it wouldn't be a bad idea to wear black.

Address: 546 University Ave., Palo Alto
Phone: 650.325.8500
Hours: Lunch 11:30am-2:30pm daily ; dinner 5:30pm-9pm Sun-Thu; 5:30pm-10pm Fri-Sat
Cuisine: New Vietnamese
Full Bar

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From the December 12-18, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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