East of the Moon and South of the Border

3519 Butler St., Lawrenceville

Open seven days: Mon.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-midnight; Sun., noon-9 p.m.; Happy Hour: Mon.-Fri., 5-7 p.m.; Small plates: $7-$9; Robata Grill and Ceviche: $1.50-$3; Specialty Maki: $10-$14; Entrées: $12-$16; Street parking. Major credit cards. Full bar. Wheel-chair access on first floor. No smoking. No reservations.

On a night with a perfect half moon, my husband, Brad, and I entered brand-new Tamari, an Asian/Latin sushi house in Lawrenceville, where we knew we could eat well, have fun and purposefully, mind you, overdose on wasabi.

When our table came up, we were led past bar stool after bar stool, past a kinda kinky iron fence, whose random spokes mimic movement, an airy sort of boundary slyly calling people in instead of keeping them out. Tamari is a place where chefs in black caps simultaneously attend to guests while briskly plating amazing dish after amazing dish. It’s practically like theater, and counter seats have become our favorite. From that vantage point, we can determine where the secrets are, focus our attention on nuance and view the creative process, constantly reminding ourselves to try new things.

The sparkling sushi house with its sleek urban skin, its cool, spare elegance and civilized sound levels is definitely part of the Lawrenceville scene, something for everyone and every mood. "It’s got a buzz about it," says proprietor Allen Chen of the current state of Lawrenceville.
In two seemingly long years of waiting for permits and pre-restaurant misfires, Tamari looks as if it purposely caught the crest of a rising wave of Butler Street gentrification – a boon, Chen realizes in retrospect. People are friendly and merchants extend supportive welcomes to one another, reminding him of "old Shadyside" when you could hear Kenny Blake or Harold Betters blowing their horns from the Balcony and Encore, reggae leaking out from the rickety stage on stilts at Lou’s and rock ‘n’ roll blaring out of the Razzberry Rhino.

On two successive nights we ended up with the same server, a guy with a little starch, though I concede he may have just been shy.
Regardless, it was not hard to figure out Tamari is a place to eat small, er, eat a lot of small things. "Chinese share" valiantly swims against the dominant "Pittsburgh share" current. I wish more local spots would catch on to this healthy way of eating, allowing for more holistic pleasure.

Meanwhile, everyone’s initial question turns out to be presciently answered at the top of the menu. In the language of the indigenous Huarpe of Argentina, the word "tamari" describes people who "do everything with passion."

It would be easy to be swayed by all of Tamari’s charms, but the food does all of the necessary talking. And this is no place to be ethnocentric. Mix and match. Try the robata grills, tiny bamboo skewers shaped like oars and served with three dunking sauces (ponzu butter, ginger and chimichurri), with options such as calamari, zucchini, shiitake, the day’s fish or even better, the chef’s inspired robata combination. Right now everyone’s talking about the bacon and quail egg, including our waiter – and he was right. It is lovely, like a Sunday dish of bacon and eggs, in mini-form.

Sushi is fresh and jewel-like (Pittsburghers have already passed Sushi 101), and the selections seem even better when you have a seat at the sushi bar. Chefs get to know regulars – it’s part of the protocol. Chipotle tuna tartare with avocado cream, wasabi tobiko and plantain chips is a combo that’s another small summation of what (the larger) Tamari is all about.

I love tuna and yellowtail ceviche, served on beautiful white-porcelain leaf-shaped plates with red onion, cilantro and serrano pepper on top of tostones. At the top of the list of specialty maki, "tamari" with white tuna, chipotle mayo and crab crowned with torched scallops is a beautiful play on flavors and textures.

Under "small plate," phyllo-wrapped tiger shrimp, with a skin the consistency of coconut, is, I promise, anything but ubiquitous. Again, it’s all about taste and texture. This version is accented with mango sauce and cilantro vinaigrette – divine and not too sweet.
The fusion is obvious in a Peking duck quesadilla with queso (mozzarella and asiago cheese), pepino, charred serrano and hoisin. If you want to spice it up, go ahead.

And the lemongrass chicken spring roll – our server’s suggestion in this category, was also a delight. I had just finished reading Bon Appétit’s recent restaurant issue, which asserts that chicken is now the hottest item on menus around the country when talking quality in creative formats. I found the notion almost absurd, and then I tasted the thick fried pocket: crispy, crunchy and a little doughy all at once, sliced diagonally to expose soothing vermicelli, carrot and shiitake, complemented by sambal sauce with jalapeño salsa – hot enough to make my eyes water (and that’s the way I like it). Oh, I loved the chicken!

We also shared an earthy Chilean sea bass entrée with smoky, chipotle whipped potato, sautéd watercress and a smoked chili butter; and we enjoyed a meltingly tender 16-spice-rubbed pork tenderloin. Suddenly, the menu is no longer intimidating.
As you go along, you’ll find that you begin to recognize flavors and spices, the best of what fusion should be about. No need to understand everything all at once. Fish tacos with pineapple salsa and tempura jalapeño are quite popular, though I personally fight the urge to go with something I know.

Talk to your neighbors or just look at their plates. I saw a mushroom salad I never would have ordered if I hadn’t seen it in person, so to speak. Shiitake, king trumpet and cremini mushroom varieties were served over ever-so-gently sautéd arugula with cilantro vinaigrette. If you’re in to mushrooms, you’ll love this.

A lobster tempura roll, presented as a special, is, luckily, over the top. It transforms one tail into two exquisite offerings: On one side of the plate, five delicious, soulful maki rolls layered with lobster, avocado and cucumber are finished with red and black topiko, (which reminds me of jimmies on ice cream). The remaining tail is cut it into cubes, which are tempura-fried and returned to the original shell, then served with a spicy mayo-eel sauce on the side.

Allen Chen, who has restaurant in his blood – his father is Michael Chen, a well-known East End restaurateur – grew up in the business, washing dishes and busing tables at the family’s "store" in Shadyside, China Palace. After attending the University of Colorado at Boulder, Chen moved to Mexico "for yet a new challenge, new scenery." In San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, he fell in love with Mexican culture, lifestyle, street food and most important, his wife, Vicky.

Genuine and poetic even on the telephone, Chen reminisced, "This was my awakening to Latin cooking techniques and flavor profiles. I saw so many similarities between the two cultures [Latin and Asian] that I began keeping a journal, overflowing with notes and thoughts about innovative cuisine and new flavor profiles. I’d say the Korean skirt-steak fajita [on the menu as an entrée] with Asian slaw, serrano peppers, with a toasted flour tortilla, sums up what I discovered, what we’re all about."

Upon returning here in 2003, Chen rediscovered Pittsburgh: "There is so much culture, a decent cost of living. We found bike trails, a nice dining scene." When his landlord brought the empty lot at 3519 Butler St. to his attention as a potential site for a restaurant, it was virtually just four brick walls and a courtyard, but Chen found the courtyard irresistible. Fascinated by the possibilities, he took a rental option in 2007 and started construction the next year.

Meantime, Roger Li – who had left Philadelphia to start his own restaurant, New Moon Fusion, on the North Shore – agreed to come aboard as executive chef. The two had met at a restaurant show a few years earlier, and Chen remembered being "wowed" by his "Asian/fusion" interpretations.

Li and Chen are a perfect pair, shattering provincial images as fast as culinary stereotypes as they transform these postmodern digs into an unpretentious, urban groundbreaker. It is great to see Chen following in his father’s footsteps, pacing the floor in tennis shoes and suit coat, smiling hard but genuine, chatting up everyone, making patrons feel welcome. With its ingenious, affordable menu, plenty of great seating and extended dinner hours, Tamari succeeds because it relies on a winning confluence of casual yet imaginative food served in an easygoing yet exuberant atmosphere.

Last, but never least in my book, are the desserts, which are specially made for Tamari by Dozen, a bakery just a few doors down. The results are spectacular – from a brilliant chocolate-ganache tart with cinnamon and cayenne pepper to green-tea coconut cake.
A post-dessert stop at the upper deck and we’re suddenly part of a surprising, almost-clandestine world of back-alley balconies that offer a perfect view of the city.

There’s more to say but no room to write it. So go. The food just keeps getting better and better.
On my last visit, the place was packed, upstairs and down. People were reveling over fancy street food at the bar, while others stood in line, waiting their turn. At one end of the bar, I noticed a young woman sitting with a glass of wine and reading a book, seemingly oblivious to the tumult. She fit right in, and this example of the successful mix-and-match of things here at an Asian/Latin sushi house is just one of many reasons I like Tamari.

Each month, Deborah McDonald jump-starts appetites with lively restaurant reviews that scrutinize who’s cooking what and where. She works anonymously, visiting each restaurant at least twice before writing her column.

Do you know of a restaurant you’d like to have reviewed? E-mail Deborah.

Categories: Restaurant Reviews