After weighing our options and remembering that we still had a few Groupons floating around for participating restaurants, we narrowed it down to three top choices:
1.) NineOnNine downtown on Penn Ave.
2.) Bistro 16 on Washington Rd. in Mt. Lebanon
3.) Tamari on Butler St. in Lawrenceville
Believe me, all will get their review in due time, but for this particular evening we battled it out over a glass of homemade Pino Noir and finally landed on Tamari on Butler street in Lawrenceville. Tapas is the new, hip thing now, isn't it? And I find it difficult to turn down anywhere that offers fresh Sashimi. Tamari was recently voted not only among Pittsburgh Magazine's Top 25 Restaurants, but the Best New Restaurant in the region as well. I thought I would see if it deserved the title.
Let's start with the not-so-obvious reason I liked Tamari. I am a public transporter. I work downtown and rely heavily on my bus pass to get me from point A to points B, C and D on a day-to-day basis. On this particular date night, I was working late and it was far more convenient for me so simply hop on a bus and meet him in Lawrenceville. Tamari was right on a number of convenient bus routes (the 64 from both Squirrel Hill and Shadyside, 77F & 77D and 81B from downtown, 500, 71A, 54C from Oakland etc.). I simply hopped on the first 77 that came my way and off I went to meet PID for a fancy dinner.
The restaurant is quaint. An intimately enclosed outdoor dining patio greets you as you arrive with black steel tables and chairs.
It was a hot, sticky evening so we thought about opting for inside dining -- although our reserved table was apparently set indoors anyway, so we weren't even faced with the decision. In typical Pittsburgh fashion, the restaurant was long and lean, extending back past the bar and open kitchen with seating all along the left wall.
I'm typically not a fan of multiple tables sharing one bench, however tables here were spaced at a comfortable enough distance apart that I didn't feel as though I was a part of our neighbors' dining experience.
And it was time for the wine:
It was with the wine that I was sorely disappointed. All of their wines (aside from the reserves, of course) are equally priced at $7.50 per glass and $28 per bottle. While that may be superb news for someone ordering a robust, aged red, I was planning on ordering seafood -- with which a nice, soft (typically less expensive) white would go quite nicely. So I settled on the Ste. Chapelle Riesling (Ste. Chapelle IDAHO mind you -- not France.)
Upon closer examination, I noticed that half of the listed labels seemed less than extravegant. Later that evening I went home and revisited the menu and searched online -- most of the bottles made available at Tamari (again, not on reserve) sold for between $9 and $20/bottle retail price. To charge $7.50 per glass for a US 2009 Riesling to me is preposterous.
Then on to the appetizer:
PID and I were intrigued by their Robata Grill selections -- a variety of meat selections served on skewers (loaded with three bite sized cutlets) accompanied by three unique dipping sauces: ponzu butter, ginger & chimichurri.
They were reasonably priced at $2-3 per skewer. PID opted for Lamb with Jalepeno, Shrimp and Bacon & Quail egg.
And finally, the main course:
We showed up completely prepared to order the $20.10 Local Restaurant Week deal: Panko Crusted Oysters served with Yuzu Aioli on a bed of a Jicama Slaw to start followed by Pan Roasted Chicken with Fingerling Potatoes and Wasabi Chimichurri. Don't speak that language? That's what I'm here for.
Panko: a variety of flaky bread crumb used in Japanese cuisine as a crunchy coating for fried foods
Yuzu: a tart Japanese citrus fruit (tasting similar to a grapefuit or mandarin orange) used to flavor dishes much like a lemon is used in the US -- yuzu know what I'm sayin?
Aioli: a garlic and olive oil based sauce which is often added to/flavored and has many variations
Jicama: pronounced HICK-kah-ma. the red-headed-step-child of the produce section, Jicama is, essentially, a high carb sweet flavored root. I like saying Jicama, don't you?
Fingerling Potatoes: small potatoes.
After careful consideration (and as a shock to both of us), PID and I veered away from our original plan to order the dining deal. .I can cook chicken any night of the week -- I want something unique when I'm paying someone else to cook for me! But those oysters sounded delicious, so I ordered them special (she charged me $9). From there we decided that, since we were in the Japanese version of a Tapas bar, that we would order Tapas style: little bit of a lot of stuff.
I was giddy with excitement when I saw that they had Tuna Tartar. I chose that and an order of the Tempura Calamari with tomatillo salsa, chipotle mayo & nuoc cham to accompany the oysters. PID went with an order of the Tuna Sashimi and the braised pork belly as his "entree" which our server immediately questioned. She shared with us some insight on the dish, that the flavors are intense and far from diners' typical expectations. PID quickly changed his order to the Beef Tenderloin.
My Tartar arrived with our skewers which was a hassle. We had to perform a balancing act on our table to fit all of the plates and it made sharing difficult. I suppose I understood since only one thing ordered between the two of us was classified as an "entree." I shouldn't have assumed our waitress understood our plan of edible attack. I started with PID the skewers first, letting him have two of the three of each selection. They were DELICIOUS!
(Let's get one thing out of the way -- I NEED A BETTER CAMERA. I know this, I apologize in advance, it will happen someday. SOME day.)
Perfectly proportioned, they provided a wonderful amuse bouche. I tried each sauce and complemented the meats in a very different, but very appropriate way. The shrimp and ponzu butter, however, stole the show for me.
And now I got to dig in to my tartar! I've mentioned before that I try tartar everywhere that serves it to experience unique recipes and accompanying attributes. Though I can't say it was the best I've ever had, I was beyond impressed with their inventive take on the dish.
The yuzu crème fraiche (which tasted like a fancy twist on cream cheese) provided an excellent texture addition to the soft, chewy tuna but took away from the taste, for me. It was almost a numbing taste rather than a complementary one. My favorite part, however, were the banana chips! Bravo, Tamari for your creativity with the tartar!
Though our waitress checked back with us with some frequency (my Pepsi only went dry for about 5 minutes), it took an absurdly long time for us to get our next round of food (which was odd since we had about 14 rounds of food and there were only about nine people total in the restaurant).
When it finally arrived, PID's sashimi was extremely fresh and, according to him (or what I could gauge from his full-mouthed mumbles) was extremely tasty. His Beef Tenderloin "entree," however, was left wanting.
Barely larger in circumference than our bite sized skewer pieces, his beef looked and smelled charred. PID admitted that it tasted delicious, but couldn't initially pinpoint what it reminded him of. We later realized it was beef jerky.
The Yuzu Aioli on my oysters was the saving grace. They were far too fried for my liking, all I tasted was Panko crumbs and the crunch was hard to overcome!
Though the Jicima provided a fresh taste to accompany it, the oysters aren't on the menu, and I would keep it that way.
Finally, our waitress brought out the calamari served in a tipped "Chinese takeout box" and overflowing in to the three sauces.
This calamari was the lightest, tastiest I've ever had. The tempura batter was not heavy and we found ourselves enjoying more squid than fried shell (which is ne'er too often the case). I couldn't even tell you which was favorite sauce. I was sneaking finger dips in what was left of all three by the time the calamari was finished!
Drinks: 1 Ste. Chapelle (IDAHO) Reisling @ $7.50 (I'm a lush and drank alone)
2 diet Pepsis @ $2.50
Meal: Panko Crusted Oysters $9
Tuna Tartar @ $9
Tempura Calamari @$8
Tuna Sashimi @ $6
Beef Tenderloin (w/ pickled ginger-cauliflower puree, rapini, bonito flakes & port wine ancho sauce) @ $18
Dessert: Couldn't hack it
Tax: @ 7% (Allegheny County only) $5.22
Tax: @ 7% (Allegheny County only) $5.22
Tip: (a little less than 20%, we sat for a while) $15
TOTAL FOR TWO: $94.72
We spent WAY too much money. At no fault but our own, I'm sure. We suffered from what I like to call EBS (eyes bigger than stomach syndrome). We said "hey, everything's small here let's just get a lot" when I didn't realize half of my items were fried which filled me up incredibly quickly, and PID didn't realize half of his items were sized for field mice which left him hungry. We planned poorly, but ate well. I would recommend Tamari strictly for the atmosphere and Robata Grill items to anyone looking for an intimate dinner setting, but not for large parties. Heavens, I have no idea where you'd sit if you came with a party of 5 or more! I also will not likely go back unless begged by out-of-towners or local newbies who are jonesing for a hip hot-spot. My income isn't suited for that kind of spending on that amount of food.