Tamari - Lawrenceville Neighborhood
My wife doesn’t love to try new restaurants and doesn’t really love Italian food either. These two preferences have made it hard for me to get her to the popular eatery Piccolo Forno in Lawrenceville. Luckily I caught her with her defenses down after a long day at work one recent Thursday evening and she apathetically agreed to go. As the corner restaurant came into sight on Butler Street, I noticed someone entering the establishment toting a bottle of wine. My wife then remarked “You know Piccolo Forno is B.Y.O.B. right?”, to which I exasperatedly responded with a “Nooooo!”. A stressful work day elevated my normal optional dinner drink to a necessity so I pulled a u-ey and backtracked a few blocks lower to one of our area favorites – Tamari.
When Tamari opened during the summer of 2009, it was the first Pittsburgh restaurant that created a noticeable buzz in the city since Nakama hibachi’d the Southside back in 2003. I must have overheard people say, “Have you tried Tamari yet?” at the gym, in coffee shops, bars and at other restaurants once a week. Tamari burst onto the scene allowing Pittsburgh to enter into the major metropolis trend of restaurants serving upscale, innovative food in a chilled-out and only slightly pretentious atmosphere.
The first time I dined at Tamari, I found that the experience more than lived up to the hype. The Asian and Latin American cuisine offerings were extremely interesting, appealing and tasty. The atmosphere was refined, yet casual enough to be comfortable – sorta like the culinary equivalent of a blazer and jeans. The establishment’s au courant coolness was cemented when I noticed Sally Wiggin* dining at the restaurant as well. Between her and the hipsters, there was no doubt that Tamari was the place to be.
Though no Wiggin was in attendance on our most recent visit, we still found the restaurant pretty packed on this particular Thursday evening. We gave our names to the hostess and found seats at the bar so I could get that drink I oh so desperately needed. I was in the mood for something rich, heavy and dark (aka an Oprah beer) and thought that the Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald (5.8% ABV – American Porter) would fit the bill. Slight disappointment arose while I watched the bartender uncap and pour a bottled beer into a glass for I was assuming a crisp draft was coming my way. Fortunately my inner beer snob** was immediately quelled by the hoppy, roasted coffee flavor of the frosty porter. Though the beer had a complex taste with notes of bittersweet chocolate and vanilla oak, all the rich flavors blended together harmoniously and made for an easily drinkable and refreshing libation.
We waited at the bar for about twenty minutes before we were guided to a table against the back wall. The interior (and exterior) of Tamari is rather unassuming with a relatively muted color palate and lack of any ornate design elements. The atmosphere is energized by the open sushi bar/kitchen area, which allows diners to watch the frenetic action taking place. The menu at Tamari has a multitude of mouthwatering selections and I ended up ordering a lot of them. A few past dishes I’ve had there were on the smaller side, and I was determined to not leave Lawrenceville hungry. Shortly after the waitress took our menus, she returned with an amuse-bouche consisting of spicy salmon tartar with eel sauce over a cucumber slice. Despite sounding exotic, the bite was actually pretty straightforward with the major aftertaste being one of crisp freshness. Even my wife liked it!
After I was finished with the small hors d’oeuvre, an avalanche of food commenced to roll out of the kitchen and onto my table. First up for me were the Guacamole and Filo Shrimp. The freshly prepared guacamole had a nice balance between the heat of serrano peppers and the queso fresco coolness. The consistency of the gauc’ was a little thin, but the accompanying salty-sweet plantain chips helped me forgive the possible use of overripe avocados.
The gargantuan shrimp came wrapped in delicate fried strings of filo dough. This preparation made the dish as visually appealing as it was scrumptious, albeit quite messy to bite. Out of the three companion dipping sauces, the chimichurri was by far my favorite. The coconut saffron was a tad blah, and the avocado crème suffered from my other tapas already more than satisfying my desire for alligator pear.
I followed up the tapas with a main course of lobster maki. The tempura coating was almost not crispy enough but it was passible. Keeping with the theme of the evening, the roll also had an avocado constituent. Luckily it wasn’t all that noticeable due to the sriracha aioli and flying fish roe dominating the flavor profile. The lobster fritters on the side served up another fix of fried crustaceans and was deliciously meaty. My only complaint with the otherwise excellent dish was that the diameter of the sushi roll pieces were way to large to be one-bite. This is one of the few cases where more girth is a bad thing.
Final Call: Before Tamari, there really wasn’t a consensus as to what the Steel City’s hippest restaurant was. Since it opened, their impressive Asian-Latin fusion offerings have set the standard for high-quality, innovative and playful cuisine. It’s not cheap by any means, but if you’re looking for a memorable night-out in a refined casual atmosphere with the chance of seeing local newscasting luminaries, then you really can’t beat Tamari.
* Sally Wiggin is the Anna Wintour of Pittsburgh, but nicer.
** My inner beer snob is named Marc-Andre.