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Friday, February 11, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

Traditions, refreshing new touches at Tamarind Tree

Seattle Times restaurant critic

Tamarind Tree


1036 S. Jackson St., Suite A, Seattle; 206-860-1404

Vietnamese

3 stars

$

Reservations: Mondays-Thursdays only.

Hours: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. Note: Closed at 5 p.m. tomorrow for private party.

Prices: appetizers $3-$6, salads $6.50, soups $4.50-$9.95, steamed rolls, rice and noodles dishes and other main courses $6-$10.95, Bo 7 mon (seven courses of beef, for two) $18.95, desserts $2.95-$4.95.

Beverages: a few food-appropriate wines plus plenty of bottled beers, bested by excellent specialty cocktails and intriguing nonalcoholic options.

Sound: moderate.

Parking: private lot.

Who should go: Those seeking a taste of Vietnam — and a terrific cocktail — in a relaxed upscale setting; Vietnamese-food neophytes ready to move beyond pho and bahn mi.

Full bar / credit cards: MC, V / no obstacles to access / smoking allowed at two window tables.

I'm in a room painted to resemble the inside of a ripe papaya, drinking a fussy cocktail and listening to soft jazz. My table — adjacent to a gas-fueled fire pit — wears delicate ceramic dinnerware and colorful linen napkins. Repairing to the "ladies," I find orchid blossoms floating in glass bowls and sinks whose basins slope in fetching fashion. The last time I spotted fixtures like these I was paying top dollar for lunch at one of Manhattan's It restaurants.

But I am not in Manhattan, nor Belltown, nor any other upmarket enclave that appeals to the jazz-and-cocktails crowd. I'm in the rear quadrant of the Asian Plaza, eating inexpensive Vietnamese food that has my senses reeling: pickled bon bon salad and crispy sweet potatoes with shrimp. Dill-strewn Thang Long yellow fish and raw beef cooked — fonduelike — in vinegar. Savory green padania-leaf ice cream and sweet beans over crushed ice. Small wonder Seattle's Vietnamese community is abuzz with the good word on Tamarind Tree, which took its rightful place in the heart of Little Saigon this fall.

That owner Tam Nguyen has planted his Tree in the recesses of an aging strip mall at 12th and Jackson is a credit to his community spirit. Sure, other restaurateurs have extended their hand in hipper neighborhoods, offering upscale Vietnamese fare and buzz-inducing beverages. But this is something different. Tamarind Tree, while embracing all comers, clearly has its countrymen at heart.

Nonnative diners might consider service-hiccups to be serious lapses. But with food this good, at prices this reasonable, in such an appealing setting, I say: Take a chill pill. If the main course arrives before your appetizer and salads, chill — preferably with a ginger-stoked cosmopolitan in hand. If your "seven courses of beef" ($18.95 for two!) arrives as seven preparations — three served on a single plate as a single course, the "first-course" soup (a congeelike concoction of broken rice and beef) showing up last, relax. Your fellow diners aren't testy over timing, because this is to be expected at the Vietnamese table.

And while you won't need a translator to help navigate the lengthy annotated menu, it certainly helps. Having a native speaker along proved a boon one evening. Mainly because my friend had no compunction about shouting "Anh! Anh!" — loose translation, "Yo, buddy!" — in our waiter's direction every time we needed something. (Non-Vietnamese would be better off raising a hand).

He shouted when we wanted another lemongrass martini ($6), an elegant refresher with a lemongrass swizzle stick. And again when we needed more rice paper pancakes for wrapping fresh herbs and leaf lettuce. Note to neophytes: These dried disks are meant to be re-hydrated in what appears to be a fingerbowl, soaked briefly before stuffing it with this luscious morsel of meat or fish, or that. Note to neophytes inclined to flout etiquette: It's not a fingerbowl, so don't use it to wash off the last of those delightfully pungent, sticky, fish-flavored dipping sauces.

My friend cried "Anh! Anh!" when our waiter failed to bring small bowls for sharing our Hue spicy noodles ($5.95), whose complement of mystery meat includes pork blood and beef shank and whose flavors, says my pal, are "an acquired taste" that even he has failed to acquire. Nonsense. With exception to the few quivery, livery cubes of blood, this surprisingly mild noodle-based soup, vaguely sweet and flavored with shrimp paste, was delicious.

While perusing the menu, it's wise not to set your heart on a particular dish. Chances are they'll be out of something. When this happened three times during my initial visit, our savvy young waiter used his persuasive abilities to steer us away from the dishes that caught our eye, suggesting others that seduced our palates.

Instead of halibut with dried lily blossoms, straw mushrooms and vermicelli, we were directed to braised catfish glazed with a caramelized coat, sweetened with fresh coconut juice and served in a clay pot ($8.95). Banh xeo, the classic Vietnamese crepe made with pork, seafood and bean sprouts, was unavailable. But oh! the turmeric coconut rice cakes offered instead ($6.75)! Like a divine hors d'oeuvre passed at a fancy wedding, each creamy-crunchy little cake came topped with shrimp. Rather than the jackfruit ice cream cake described in a lengthy dessert dissertation (oops! 86'd), we were guided to a whole young coconut, its top lopped-off, its sweet juice turned into the Vietnamese version of Jell-O ($4.95). Incredible.

I'd take a miss on the mushy grilled eggplant ($7.95) that was, comparatively speaking, bland — a description that also extends to the bone-in curry chicken ($7.95).

But having sampled more than two dozen dishes from a menu full of surprises, I'd find it difficult to dine here again without ordering the bon bon salad ($6.50), an herb-lover's hillock tossed with lightly pickled vegetables and slivered langsat (a slippery-tasting fruit reminiscent of young coconut), topped with grilled shrimp. Or the vegetarian Tamarind Tree rolls ($4) — one of several artfully arranged salad rolls. Or any number of nonalcoholic beverages, including the sweet and salty apricot soda.

Given its size, the word on the street, the celebration of the Lunar New Year and a growing list of fans, don't expect to have an easy time scoring a table here during prime hours anytime soon. But take solace in the knowledge that Tamarind Tree is open throughout the day, and take heed: They're closed tomorrow evening for a private event.

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or taste@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/nancyleson.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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