Tamarind Tree has been enjoying its status as belle of the ball in the dancehall known as Seattle's Asian cuisine scene. When I called them Monday night, I was pretty sure they would tell me they wouldn't be able to seat us until 9pm, but the hostess who answered the phone said: 1) they don't take reservations after 5pm and 2) that they were having a slow night and I should just come on in.
I noticed right away that this place is working its location and will put a hurting on the other Vietnamese restaurants in the plaza. By being located smack dab in the middle of the International District, it gains some credibility. Tom Douglas isn't in the kitchen cooking up Asian fusion, and yet, the restaurant's vibe makes you wonder if maybe he is... There's the austerely modern waterfall gushing water outside the entrance. Because it's pretty much all you see from inside the restaurant (dark and sultry with its dim lighting, cranberry and sunflower walls, grass green wall sconces, and stained concrete), you get the sense you've been transported somewhere far more glamorous than the corner unit of the Asian Plaza shopping center on the corner of 12th and Jackson. It's like no other Vietnamese restaurant I've ever been to.
I was a little scared the waiters wouldn't speak Vietnamese, but when the teenage boy who seated us spoke English with a barely detectable accent, I knew his parents had done right. The waiter was similarly authentic when he asked me if we'd also want canh chua, ubiquitous at the Vietnamese dinner table, with the Vietnamese "family" meal I'd put together from the menu.
Almost every table was occupied (so much for a slow night) and at least two groups were in front of us when we arrived, but we were seated almost right away. The good service kind of stopped there, though. The waiter arrived fairly promptly to take our cocktail orders, but took a lot longer bringing them to our table. He seemed a little annoyed that I felt the need to remind him, but he had already delivered three out of four of our dishes and I was beginning to wonder if he'd forgotten we ordered the drinks in the first place. After our food came, we had minimal interaction with our server. He and I had a silent exchange when it was time for more rice. I was holding an empty bowl post-scoop and he was on his way past us with dishes he'd cleared from the table behind us. I caught his eye and he nodded wordlessly. I didn't get the words out until after he was already gone. The rice came, though, so that's good. We had a similar experience when the busser came to clear our table. We said we wanted everything boxed up. I added, "The rice, too." He nodded and took away two plates. He came back awhile later with a styrofoam container in a plastic bag. I wasn't sure he'd come back with the rest of our food later. He did, but I had given it up for lost.
Luckily, this service didn't land Tamarind Tree on my husband's boycott list. I think "the best mojito ever" won him over. I liked my Kumquat Crush, too, but not as much as he liked Tam's Mojito with brown sugar. Vietnamese know their way around limes and mint, I tell you. The cocktails were made by the matriarch. I smiled to myself a lot as I watched her expertly pouring drinks behind the bar.
I got to be the one to order everything. I only got my husband's input on the seafood dish and we ended up ordering something I never would have considered. Even the waiter said, "Are you sure?" when I asked for the mam chung. Ground beef and anchovies topped with the yolk from a preserved egg. "Sure, why not?" It wasn't nearly as salty or fishy as we had hoped it would be. The waiter delivered the mam chung with a dish of herbs and cucumber that we assumed were accompaniment because the flavor was greatly enhanced when eaten wrapped in the basil (hung que), mint (kinh gioi), perilla (tia to), and fish herb (diep ca). The cucumbers also ameliorated the lack of moisture in the patty. I was thankful that they didn't go the lean meat route with the thit kho (braised pork belly in coconut juice) or the thit ga xao xa ot (lemongrass and chili pepper chicken).
The hunks of pork in the thit kho were a little big, a bad idea because each bite really needs a balance between the lean and fatty parts to not taste either too dry or too fatty. The fat on this pork was truly succulent, melting in your mouth without seeming at all heavy. They included multiple eggs in the pretty, lidded pot that the thit kho came in. I'd never seen thit kho prepared with hard-boiled eggs that had been battered and fried. I don't know if this is some nouveau cuisine thing or just a Tamarind Tree thing, but I liked it. I was less happy with their measly pickled cabbage offering. They used regular cabbage instead of napa cabbage. The cabbage was also slivered and practically fresh, not spitting vinegar and exuding that oxidized dark green that I prefer.
The lemongrass and chili chicken was good, although I detected very little lemongrass flavor on the sticky pieces of dark chicken meat. I'm used to eating lemongrass chicken with so much pounded lemongrass in it that you practically have to pick it out of your teeth, but I was happy enough with the flavor of real peppers. This dish would have been just fine had they called it thit ga xao ot, making no mention of the xa.
Just like at home, our rau muong made the slightest gesture at our attempt to incorporate vegetables into the meal. I guess the canh chua soup would have had tomatoes, pineapple, bean sprouts and probably celery, but we didn't order it... The rau muong was called an inexplicable "Morning Glory Garlic" on the menu, but I didn't much care because I was just excited to see they had it at all. The stems were delightfully crunchy and the garlic in the dish occupied that perfect space between too pungent and too fried out. I love the green cooking liquid rau muong makes. If it was a juice, I'd drink it.
I didn't swoon all over the place like everyone else is doing, but I am curious about their bo bay mon (seven beef courses) and would definitely like to come back to sample some more off their menu. They managed to serve solid Vietnamese fare without padding the menu prices too much, but I think I like the idea that they're aiming to be a classier Vietnamese restaurant best.