Dead reckoning

Tarazza's food manages to transcend its messy geography

When I was a student, to use the term loosely, at the University of Texas in Austin, the well-respected classics professor Dr. Douglass Parker taught a (very popular) course called "Parageography." The point of the class was, believe it or not, to explore "the geography of imaginary countries." That's what a lot of us did in our spare time in those days, so the course's sign-up appeal was easily accounted for. Unfortunately, I found that places like Middle Earth and Lilliput--just like so very many real-life destinations--were more interesting left less explored, and it wasn't long before I decided the course itself was like an outpost of the imaginary country described by Dante, so I dropped it, having only added another useless word to my vocabulary. Or so I thought; now I find that "parageography" is actually a useful term, and--after a meal at the new Tarazza--I'm tempted to attempt some paracartography of the fictional places that inspired this food.

What to make of a menu that stuffs spring rolls with crawfish (the Japanese variety, I assume), coats chicken fried steak with toasted coconut (a virtual taste of the Mediterranean) and tosses apple-smoked bacon in a miso vinaigrette? What is "Japanese risotto"? Or "Pacific Rim pesto"? Is this Mediterranean food? Is it Asian? Is it American?

Tarazza is the joint creation of Costa Arrabatzis, chef-owner of Ziziki's, the neo-Greek bistro downstairs, and Teiichi Sakurai, owner of Teppo, the popular yakitori and sushi restaurant on Lower Greenville. It describes itself as a "unique version of Pacific Rim which incorporates Asian, Japanese, and Mediterranean ingredients into traditional dishes." I'd be intrigued with anything that incorporates the Mediterranean into the Pacific Rim, which I assume relies on some kind of navigation by Mobius strip, since I certainly can't make it work on my globe.

But mostly I'm intrigued with Tarazza, not for its unlikely geographical assumptions, or even its schizophrenic-sounding menu (some things everyone knows from parageography: we all learned from the Scarecrow that "of course, people do go both ways"). What's interesting is the partnership of these two chefs who have applied their similar sensibilities to very different cuisines, established vibrant, unique restaurants in a business and a city in love with mirror images and the safety of repetition, and instead of opening Teppo Addison or Plano Ziziki's, decided to enrich their own neighborhoods further by trying something completely new and different from what they were already doing.

Tarazza's menu combines the culinary provenances of Costa and Teiichi; its location, Travis Walk, has been its own imaginary land. Finding your way around in there has never been easy, and the plan seems to change every time you go. How imaginary is that? You enter Tarazza by climbing a sweeping staircase into the restaurant, a difficult location which has housed a number of failed restaurants since Travis Walk opened with a resounding thud in the early eighties. The irrepressible Mario Leal's Chiquita and L'Ancestral, a decidedly French destination with nothing fanciful about it, are the oldest living inhabitants of this center. Then Costa made Ziziki's work, and now Cafe Society has built a better mousetrap with an attendant following, so perhaps the public will support this risky new venture. Perhaps, that is, they'll be able to find it without a sextant. "Exit Sipango and look up" might be the best directions, but that would assume you'd already spent your night's entertainment budget. Anyway, Tarazza is called so because of the large outdoor patio that overlooks the busy valet scene at Sipango, but its real attractions are inside. The romantically lit, golden glow dining room (Costa and Teiichi designed the space, with some help from Vertu, the high-style store downstairs) is dominated by a bar and a grand piano. Tables are mostly pulled up to easy banquettes; the whole effect is of an old-fashioned, soft-edged piano bar. It's way ahead of the self-conscious, cutting-edge style now in vogue; Tarazza is as retro-hip as a buttoned-up shirt, and it's completely sincere.

We started with wine from an interesting global selection compiled by Mary Cloutier (Costa's partner in Ziziki who compiled that award-winning wine list) and, having suspended our disbelief, ordered those spring rolls stuffed with crawfish. After the first bite, we decided this was a country we wanted to linger in, wherever it is. The fat-mouth feel of the meat set off the clean vegetal crunch of the slivered carrots, bean sprouts, and shredded cabbage; the pastry-like tenderness of the wrapper gave the whole an un-Oriental richness. The "Tarazza appetizer" was even more exciting--tissue-thin sheets of triangular pastry that melted like cotton candy on your tongue were folded around a crunchy, cool filling of chopped chicken seasoned with thinned hoisin and mixed with bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, and a hint of cilantro, with a tossed green salad on the side. Ziziki's salad, a variation of the classical Greek, is a favorite, and Costa has put it on Tarazza's menu, probably just so his regulars could get their bearings. The house signature salad, mixed baby and bitter greens drizzled with a miso vinaigrette perfumed with ginger, wasn't as pleasing; the dressing required something with more chew than mere lettuce--I'd like to taste it over a crudites salad, for instance.

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