Tamari opened its doors in July, almost two years after an "opening soon" banner appeared on the Butler Street storefront in Lawrenceville. Despite the long lead, the restaurant has managed to make quite a splash.
Tamari offers up Latin-Asian fusion with a menu of small-scale entrees, a full sushi bar and a profusion of extras including chile-tinged ceviches and Pittsburgh's only robata grille, a charcoal-fired hearth used to cook skewered meat, chicken and fish that originated in Japan. Tamari has the buzz and bustle of the "it" restaurant this season, along with the polish and confidence of a long-lived and long-loved destination.
Owner Allen Chen's two years of planning may have had something do to with the restaurant's instant polish, but it's his almost constant presence that really stood out. Son of Pittsburgh restaurateur Mike Chen (China Palace, Sushi Too), he understood from a very young age that success in the restaurant business meant hard work. While he can always find a few minutes to talk to a customer, you're as likely to see him consulting with chef Roger Li or clearing a table.
3 stars = Good
3519 Butler St., Lawrenceville
Hours: Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-midnight; Sunday, noon to 9 p.m.
Basics: Tamari's flexible menu blends ingredients and techniques from Asia and Latin America. The space is casual yet stylish, with a number of different spaces for eating and drinking, each with a slightly different tone, including outdoor tables in a front courtyard and on a second-floor back deck.
Recommended dishes: St. Germaine Rose cocktail, Peking duck quesadilla, lemongrass chicken spring roll, lamb lollipops, Korean skirt steak fajita, beef tenderloin, five-spice braised pork belly, robata combination, octopus ceviche, scallop sashimi, yellowtail and scallion hand roll, uni nigiri, chocolate-chile tarte.
Prices: Starters, $3-9; entrees, $12-16; robata grill, $1.50-3; sushi nigiri and sashimi, $4-8; maki, $4-10; rolls, $10-14; desserts, $6.
Wine and cocktails: 20 bottles of wine for $25 a bottle or $7 a glass offer an interesting range of varietals complementary to the menu. While the list price is low, the average markup appears to be 350 percent, with some as high as 500 percent. Nine reserve wines might appeal to more serious wine drinkers, and markups are a bit lower here, between 200 and 300 percent. Cocktails, all under $10, are mostly of the sweet and fruity variety.
Summary: First floor wheelchair accessible; credit cards accepted; no reservations; corkage, $5 per person.
Noise level: Medium-loud to very loud.
Leading by example seems to pay off. Tamari's servers offer details about the menu and seamlessly pace meals, guiding customers with patience and charm.
A little help from a knowledgeable server can be a good thing. Among the sushi bar, entrees and assorted extras, assembling an order was challenging. But thanks to the diversity of flavors and the relatively low price point of individual dishes, the menu reads like an overflowing of spending choices, not a multiple choice test.
During one early evening visit, our server suggested we start with some ceviche ($3 each) and a few items from the robata grill ($1.50 for a vegetable skewer to $14 for a combination platter) -- both heavily discounted during happy hour. Tuna, salmon, escolar, octopus and yellowtail are available ceviche-style, served on tostones and flavored with bits of red onion, cilantro and serrano. At first the tostones sounded like a gimmick, but the slightly chewy, slightly crisp plantain chips proved to be ideal serving vessels, practical and delicious in one.
The robata grill also is more than a gimmick, partly because the restaurant doesn't overuse it. Pieces of meat were tender and slightly caramelized on the edges; calamari was perfectly cooked. Bacon-wrapped quail eggs are the perfect cocktail snack. The three dipping sauces -- citrusy ponzu butter with an extra hit of umami from the soy, an almost spicy ginger sauce and herby, bright chimichurri -- are so delicious you'll want to eat them with a spoon.
The half-dozen small plates also make excellent starters and are easy to share, like a scrumptious duck quesadilla ($8) with just enough cheese to hold it together and a spicy-sweet hoisin sauce standing in for salsa.
These dishes are good examples of Tamari's fusion style, which is more about attitude than a strict culinary mandate.
A Korean skirt steak fajita ($14) was presented with an almost Japanese simplicity -- a fan of skirt steak, a small pile of neatly trimmed batons of serrano pepper and three neatly stacked triangles of toasted flour tortillas lined up on a long white plate. The understated presentation contrasted with the bold, juicy flavor of the meat and the small pile of kimchi-like slaw hidden beneath it.
Chef Li doesn't let the culinary concept put a stranglehold on his creativity. Beef tenderloin ($16) incorporated both Latin and Asian components with chipotle whipped potatoes, and a sprinkling of edamame and roasted cremini mushrooms, but it was an Italian infusion of fig compote and balsamic reduction that brought together the disparate flavors into an impressive, unusual whole.
Li took a classic American pairing, mint and lamb, and gave it fresh life as lamb lollipops with mashed, cinnamon-infused sweet potatoes and cilantro-mint chimicurri sauce ($14). The lamb lollipops (substantial enough to go by the name of chops) get an extra dose of flavor from a charred serrano hoisin crust.
While there are a handful of vegetable-based options, on the whole this menu treats omnivores better than vegetarians.
Sushi makes up a substantial portion of Tamari's menu, and for quality of fish and level of knife skills, it could go head-to-head with any sushi place in the city. A plate of squid ($4.50), scallop ($7.05) and sea bass ($5.50) sashimi was arranged as beautifully as a bouquet of flowers, white and red tinged slips against bright green fresh shiso leaves. The small squid were wrapped in tiny parcels, perfect for eating in one bite. Yellowtail ($6) and salmon ($5) were cut so perfectly for nigiri that each bite practically dissolved in the mouth. The portion of fish for nigiri was a little too generous. Rather than forming a compact block, the fish almost slipped off the small portions of rice. Fortunately, it's perfectly appropriate to eat nigiri with your hands. The rice itself was packed together a bit too tightly.
The specialty maki are good examples of the Americanized style of rolls. They won't convert anyone drawn to the purity of Japanese cuisine, but they showcase some creativity, and their ample size helps justify the higher price. The Soya ($12) makes clever use of soy paper to wrap eel, spicy tuna and avocado, a decadent combination of flavors.
Tamari's savory food options are so solid, that other aspects of the menu wind up looking a little shaky in comparison. Desserts ($6), which are prepared by Tamari's neighbor, Dozen Bakeshop, are caught in a no-man's land between bakery and restaurant desserts.
A chile-infused chocolate ganache tart was very good, but it cried out for a cooling ice cream or sorbet to balance its rich and spicy flavors. I loved the look of a green tea and red bean paste layer cake, and the cake itself was delicious, but the icing was so jaw-achingly sweet that even a very thin layer was way too much.
Cocktails could also use a little retooling. Getting drinks colder, measuring more carefully and using citrus more generously would improve offerings.
Tamari offers such distinctive spaces for different styles of dining that the food and drink options ought to be equally versatile. The downstairs bar is the see-and-be-seen spot for a drink, while the cozy second-floor lounge is perfect for a late-night dessert fix. A seat at the sushi bar provides a lively view as flames occasionally shoot up from the nearby hot line. A second-story deck offers perhaps the most stunning outdoor dining in town. Boxes of wildflowers and dramatic ironwork frame the Downtown skyline.
Tamari has it all: The views, the food, the crowds. It's a delicious reward for patience, all the sweeter for the length of the anticipation.