On the Table: Tamari dazzles, but its fusion can confuse

The ambitious Asian-Latin fare may sometimes misfire, but the service and design are superb

I want to like Tamari in Lawrenceville more than I do, but as with the Asian tamale on its menu, things don't always come together.

The tamale starts with chorizo as the most assertive ingredient. Chicken is added to sticky rice, crunchy jicama and meaty king trumpet mushrooms. Lace the tamale with lemongrass and soy sauce, then steam it in a banana leaf. The result vaguely resembles its Latin cousin stuffed with masa, slow-cooked meats, cheese or mole. But this small plate is more confusion than fusion.

3519 Butler St.





  • Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday; noon to 9 p.m. Sunday.
  • Basics: An engaging dining room and outdoor space are draws at Tamari; it's a solid neighborhood restaurant with an Asian-Latin fusion menu.
  • Dishes: Daily specials, robata grilling menu, Tamari fried rice, chifa roll, Tamari roll, sashimi.
  • Prices: Small plates, $5-$12; robata, $3-$12; specialty maki, $12-$30; nigiri/sushi/maki $5-$10; chef tasting, five-course, $60, seven-course, $80.
  • Summary: Street parking, credit cards, outdoor space, lunch, corkage $5 per person.
  • Noise level: Moderate.

The term "fusion" hasn't been embraced by restaurateurs for more than a decade, but it's still practiced in kitchens all over the country. Norman Van Aken, the Florida chef and author who coined the term in the late 1980s, first used it as a parallel to the jazz genre.

"The fusion of food between two distinct cultures can create interesting offspring," he told me in an interview last year. It can have "a syncopation or a melody that works together."

It's also the weaving of simplicity and complexity, he said, of "simple mama-rustic food, juxtaposed with the ornate food of aristocracy and fine dining."

Fusion fare at Tamari is at times lost in translation, a hasty marriage of Latin and Asian cuisine. Perhaps this stands out now more than when it opened in 2009 as an anchor in this gentrifying neighborhood because there are more restaurants to compete for diners' attention. It's also because the menu sometimes overreaches, displaying too many disparate dishes rather than paring down to showcase what chef Roger Li does well.

What resonates about Tamari is its terrific location that includes outdoor dining, strong service, an interesting drink menu and appealing specials. It helps that owner Allen Chen is very engaging and hands-on.

Regulars are loyal to Tamari because it was one of the first ambitious restaurants in Lawrenceville. They recall the "coming soon" banner put up for the restaurant in 2007 when the neighborhood was a very different place. Zoning issues and the economic downturn slowed its progress. The restaurant finally opened two years later, just before the debut of Pusadee's Garden and Round Corner Cantina, up the street.

Mr. Chen and his father Mike have developed a fan base that extends throughout the region. Allen Chen owns a second Tamari in Marshall while Mike Chen runs China Palace in McCandless and Monroeville, Sushi Too in Shadyside and Everyday Noodles in Squirrel Hill.

At the Lawrenceville Tamari, the design is one of its pluses, including the first-floor cocktail and sushi bar and open kitchen. The second-floor layout offers great people watching yet allows for intimacy, from the two-tops that align the wall to the deck with terrific Downtown views.

Beer lovers can find less-common pours, from seasonal Southern Tier Pumking to Hitachino Nest White Ale and Fat Head's Gudenhoppy Pils. Cocktails range from a tasty jalapeno margarita to a balanced bourbon smash. Happy hour regulars grab a seat at the bar 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Sundays through Fridays for half-price cocktails and tapas under $10.

I just wish the food were better. For the kale & Brussels dish ($7), pinto beans aren't hospitable to gray sprouts; they're cooked too long on heat that's too low to allow caramelizing. Add bacon, kale chips and Manchego cheese shavings and it's like the kitchen is trying to clean out the walk-in refrigerator.

Too many components clash elsewhere on the menu. Take the Cornish hen on a bed of succotash, which is sauced with mole, topped with pico de gallo and finished with asparagus and cilantro glaze.

For simpler fare, meats from the robata whet an appetite. On the Japanese-style grill, meat roasts in a pyramid to allow for more heat to circulate through skewers of chicken, salmon, tenderloin or mushroom ($3 each or a combination for $12). Occasionally, the restaurant features braised beef tongue or crispy chicken skin. Specials such as these can be the most captivating items on the menu. They have also included wahoo poke with enoki mushrooms or oxtail sliders with pear kimchi.

Among shareable dishes, kabocha cream and pickled jalapenos distract from bone marrow ($16). And lobster mac and cheese ($14) is neither Asian nor Latin, but a more casual take on "The French Laundry Cookbook" version. Look instead to mussels ($10) with preparations that vary daily or Tamari fried rice ($8) with quinoa, egg and pico de gallo.

Maki, or rolled sushi, reinforces the restaurant's fusion concept. Offerings include the chifa roll ($16) layered with shrimp tempura, cucumber and miso-torched white tuna or the Tamari roll ($18) with white tuna, scallops and sriracha aioli. For those who'd rather stick to fish without the Latin influence, the sashimi list includes nearly 20 choices of fish or vegetables. Whether it's rolls, nigiri or sashimi, fish here is fine to very good.

Service is where Mr. Chen's attention to detail is on display, as well-trained staff steer diners through the menu and read cues for when they need drinks replaced or plates cleared.

These details remind diners how charismatic Tamari can be. But a tighter menu would be a terrific update to charm regulars and inspire newcomers to return.

Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.


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