“Fusion” is not a term I generally use as praise when it comes to restaurants. It brings to mind a muddle; a chef who enjoys both Italian and Japanese food and expresses that enjoyment with a seaweed risotto topped with raw tuna. It can be done well, though, and it comes naturally to Dominique Macquet, whose home Island of Mauritius is a melting pot of cuisines as disparate as French, Chinese and Indian. At Tamarind, in the Hotel Modern, Macquet is doing something that might be called fusion, though it's far from a muddle. The food at Tamarind is mainly informed by the cooking of Vietnam. Macquet chose his long-time sous-chef at Dominique's, Quan Tran, as chef de cuisine, and Tran's approach to the cooking of his home is grounded in knowledge of the source. Also like Macquet, Tran is classically trained, and while some of the dishes on the menu are simply traditional Vietnamese preparations using high-end ingredients, others are interpretations that stretch the traditional recipe.
The summer rolls are a pretty standard take on Chia Gio, thin cylinders of fried dough encompassing ground shrimp and pork. The pork, in this case, is cured and braised, and the result is something more than the typical ground meat that fills the rolls at even the best local Vietnamese restaurants. Tran's take on beef spring rolls similarly uses marinated Morgan Ranch beef in place of the thin grilled slices of round that normally fill such rolls. The thicker pieces of tender meat are an excellent substitution to the otherwise standard dish.
Tran's spring rolls are another thing entirely. Instead of rice paper, they're wrapped in Morroccan feuille de brik pastry, and stuffed with shrimp, pork and pickled kohlrabi. Macquet told me that he gets the bread for the banh mi at Tamarind from Dong Phuong bakery, but that he is their only customer to receive the bread par-baked. It requires only a few minutes in an oven to finish, but the he compared the result to the bread at Domilise's, which is said is softer than the standard poor boy loaf.
I've sampled two banh mi at Tamarind, the confit of lamb belly and the sautéed Louisiana shrimp marinated in kaffir lime leaf and garlic. Kaffir lime leaf shows up in a number of places on the menu at Tamarind, and it's more typically associated with Thai food, but Tran told me he likes it, and he uses it judiciously. The leaves of the dwarf lime plant have an aroma that's almost artificial it's so floral. It can overpower other elements in a dish, but that hasn't happened to any dish which included the ingredient that I tasted at Tamarind. It's a hint in the shrimp banh mi, which was stuffed full of just-cooked shrimp, pickled carrot and daikon, and dressed – like all of the sandwiches – with a Sriracha-laced mayonnaise that the menu describes as a remoulade.
The lamb belly was surprisingly full of meat; there was a good bit of fat, don't get me wrong, but I expected it to be overwhelming. Macquet told me that they press the belly for 24 hours after seasoning it with garlic, thyme and rosemary. It's then cooked in its own fat for around four hours, until it's done but still a bit pink in the middle. It can then be crisped in a pan to finish, and it worked pretty well on the sandwich I had.
There's a Vietnamese jerk chicken dish on the menu that sounded interesting. In Jamaica, jerk seasoning typically means a dish that's marinated in a lot of chiles and allspice; at Tamarind the chicken is marinated in a paste of Vietnamese cilantro, (culantro) thai basil, crushed thai peppers, galangal and garlic, combined with lemon grass cured in oil and flavored with more of the kaffir lime leaf. It's the kind of preparation that, having interviewed Macquet a few times, doesn't surprise me at all. Like the time and attention that the kitchen devotes to the lamb belly, it's a technically proficient and involved dish that, when it comes out, looks simple. It's seasoned grilled chicken, and if you didn't know what went into it, you might not appreciate why it has such depth of flavor. The “Asian pesto” that dresses the noodles which come with the pan-seared drum on the lunch menu is made with peanuts, thai basil, and more of the Vietnamese cilantro.
The dinner menu branches out a bit further from Vietnamese cuisine. There is a grilled pork porterhouse served over a celery root-potato purée, with a stir-fry of broccolini and tri-color carrot and a plum wine jus. Yellowfin sashimi appears on the appetizer portion of the menu with crispy pineapple chips, and a soy-ginger sauce, and the small plates also include lemongrass and galangal-cured salmon with a steamed, toasted bun and wasabi crème fraiche. There are certainly still aspects of Vietnamese cooking in evidence; the five spice braised beef short rib with rice noodles, for example, or the banh xeo served with lamb confit and mustard greens.
The restaurant's décor is as modern as the hotel in which it is housed. There are windows opening onto Lee Circle in the main dining room, at street level, and gauzy tan shades can be drawn across the space between the raised dining area and the bar to provide some privacy. A courtyard separates Tamarind from Bellocq, the hotel's craft-cocktail bar, and it's a nice place to sit in good weather if you're waiting for a table.
The menu at Tamarind has changed a bit since it opened, as Tran and Macquet tweak things. The dessert menu will be changing further when new pastry chef Sophia Bruno comes on board. Macquet found Bruno in Buenos Aires, and spoke very highly of her. The desserts on offer at the moment are pretty good; the crème brulee topped with satsumas was good enough that I ate around half of it despite being full and despite the fact that I'm not a big fan of the dish, but from what Macquet said, Bruno's work should be even more impressive.
Tamarind is open for breakfast from 7 to 10 p.m. during the week, and until noon on Saturday and Sunday. Lunch is from Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., and dinner is Monday through Saturday from 5:30 to 10 p.m. Call (504) 962-0900 for more.