Location: 3519 Butler St., Lawrenceville. 412-325-3435. www.tamaripgh.com
Hours: Mon.-Thu. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-midnight; Sun. noon-9 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, ceviche and sushi $3-14; entrees $12-18
Fare: Asian-Latin fusion
Atmosphere: Stylishly swank
Liquor: Full bar
Attention Pittsburgh diners: Lawrenceville has arrived.
Some might argue that its growing roster of hip, eclectic boutiques and cafes put it on the map years ago. And we, too, have spent many an afternoon window-shopping on Butler Street, observing appreciatively as storefront after storefront is polished, painted and filled with the cutest clothes, the hippest housewares, the swellest vintage goods that Pittsburgh has to offer. But not until the opening of Tamari has Lawrenceville had a restaurant worthy of the creative buzz that attends its shops.
Tamari has been a long time coming. We first got excited when a banner went up on a chilly day in late winter promising an opening in summer -- of 2008. A full year later, the curtain has finally risen on one of the most exciting restaurants in Pittsburgh. Tamari was right to wait for summer to roll around again, given its spacious front courtyard, embraced by the old brick walls of the buildings on either side, which offers that rarest of Pittsburgh restaurant commodities: sidewalk seating. The only bad thing about sitting outside is not sitting inside, where dark-stained wood, crumpled copper panels, and sinuous draperies of metal beads or heavy thread help to define the bar, a rear dining area adjacent to the open kitchen and an upstairs lounge with a definite late-night vibe.
As befits eclectic Lawrenceville, the menu is original and unique. The name Tamari comes from cross-cultural homophony between a type of Japanese soy sauce and a Native South American word to describe people who do things passionately. Executive chef Roger Li follows through by blending the salty, citrusy flavors of Asia with the bright, spicy flavors of Latin America.
Although the concept and execution are high-end, individual dishes are quite reasonably priced. Which was good, because we could not resist ordering a lot, including two-thirds of the small plates on the menu. Each was more successful than the last. Peking duck quesadilla, which managed to cross cultures while nodding to the tortilla-like pancakes served with traditional Chinese-American Peking duck, is a brilliant example. The duck's rich, almost unctuous flavor was counter-balanced by just enough melty queso, bright, cucumber-like pepino and charred serrano hoisin sauce, which is something of a house specialty, blending the spicy freshness of the famously hot peppers with a less-sweet take on the ubiquitous Chinese condiment.
In the grilled romaine salad, a quartered heart of romaine was cleverly charred over high heat in order to introduce a bit of caramelizing and barely wilt the leaves. Bacon-crisp strips of prosciutto and shaved Asiago cheese added texture and salty savor to the salad. In the lemongrass spring roll, an herbal, almost sweet interior met its match in a fiery pairing of sambal and jalapeño salsa. Chipotle tuna tartare combined three of Angelique's favorites and then topped them with a rich cap of avocado crème and wasabi tobiko. Most interestingly, the fish was pureed, not merely minced, resulting in a dense, custard-like texture that was intensely flavorful.
More good things arrived in small packages: Luscious salmon ceviche was served on thick, crisp-edged little tostones, and robata grill featured mini-skewers of various meats and vegetables. Each skewer came with three sauces, of which vibrant, simple ginger was the best. (Ponzu butter and chimichurri worked with some skewers, but were less universally harmonious.) Two standout skewers were bacon-wrapped quail eggs, with creamy eggs and just-crisped bacon, and calamari, complete with tiny, tender tentacles reaching out to be devoured.
We passed over the simpler sushi offerings, but the signature Tamari maki was irresistible. Specialty rolls are often triumphs of spectacle over good taste, but this blend of white tuna, crab and scallops, sprinkled with red roe, was brilliantly unified in its flavors by a chef who is obviously intimately acquainted with seafood.
All these appetizers were supremely satisfying, but the entrée list was not to be missed. Jason's five-spice braised pork belly appeared small, but its decadent fat cap and rich meat made for an ample meal. The flavors were deep and perhaps a bit autumnal, but a small haystack of cucumber salsa provided a light, fresh contrast while little "pearl" potatoes offered a simple vehicle for picking up the spicy sambal.
Lamb "lollipops" suggested a snack-size portion, but turned out to be a generous four-bone serving of rack of lamb, charred with a crust of serrano hoisin sauce on the outside, and tender and deeply flavored within. Sweet-potato puree, nimbly balanced by the fresh herbal notes of cilantro-mint chimichurri, accompanied this delicious dish.
Creative, confident and comfortably swank, Tamari is a triumph. It was worth the wait.