Pate smeared across a banh mi at a Vietnamese noodle shop and meuniere sauce on the trout at a Creole grande dame each speak of a colonial legacy shared by two of France's very different former holdings. Exploring what happens when their respective flavors interact are the marching orders at Tamarind by Dominique, a new restaurant from chef Dominique Macquet.
This well-traveled chef tapped a veteran of his earlier restaurant kitchens, Vietnamese native Quan Tran, as his chef de cuisine at Tamarind, which opened in the new Hotel Modern on Lee Circle a few months after Macquet abruptly split with the partners at his previous venture, Dominique's on Magazine (now called Apolline).
Their approach to Vietnamese/Creole fusion tastes like this: buttery smooth tuna tartare threaded with garlicky ginger soy and garnished with planks of fried plantain; a jungly-hot shrimp remoulade over a fried green kohlrabi cake — replacing the more familiar fried green tomato; sharp galangal and the tang of lemongrass piercing clusters of cured salmon, topped with buds of black caviar.
Among my favorite entrees here is golden-crusted drum over shiitake and scallion risotto, circled by a sauce somewhere between cilantro pesto and lemony vinaigrette. Also very good were plump, sweet scallops etched with grill marks amid a tangle of garlic noodles, crisped at the edges after a dip in a hot wok. Roasted shrimp arranged around a cylinder of rice and ribbon-cut mirliton looked beautiful and were perfectly cooked but proved disappointingly bland and the underwhelming lime beurre blanc failed to bring it all together.
Tamarind delivers an offbeat meal, even if Vietnamese/Creole fusion is not exactly groundbreaking. Cafe Minh has been working this territory for years, and more Vietnamese flavors are finding their way into the mix at other contemporary Creole bistros. Macquet and Tran have added some original ideas, but too often these are confined to sides and sauces. It seems there is plenty more room to explore.
The lunch menu focuses more on Vietnamese dishes, and some ideas show promise. Shrimp-and-pork spring rolls are encased in paper-thin feuille de brick pastry rather than the usual rice paper wrapper. And the banh mi are the best and most creative renditions I've had outside the standards. Crusty, fatty hunks of lamb belly fill one, and garlic and kaffir lime pulse around large sauteed shrimp with spicy remoulade in another, all under crumbling caps of Dong Phuong baguettes.
Tamarind's bright, modern dining room has a view of Lee Circle and streetcars rumble past the windows, but it's a small space and tables are pressed close together. The bar is large by comparison, giving cocktail maven Kimberley Patton-Bragg plenty of room to craft drinks with an arsenal of salted plums, lemongrass syrup and ginger liqueur alongside the vermouth and bitters. Original and potent, they're reason enough to hop off the streetcar here and explore a little fusion in the glass.