Dead reckoning

Tarazza's food manages to transcend its messy geography

Teiichi's favorite dish on Tarazza's menu is the quail, which he marinates in sweetened soy and serves with caramelized onions and mashed Yukon Gold potatoes, an abundance of side dishes that could overwhelm the little things, but somehow, don't. Instead the pair of birds were plump and juicy--a description that may sound trite and even condescending, but the truth is, it's not that easy to present a diner with a juicy quail. They're pitifully tiny little birds and easy to overcook in a matter of seconds, making them practically inedible. Cooked correctly, as they were here, their delicate flavor, like a faint eau de turkey, came through clearly, unsmothered by the heap of yellow potatoes and thick slicks of sweaty sweet onions. Our favorite dish, differing with Teiichi, was the lamb curry, either an exotic twist on osso buco, or a collision between that Italian lamb stew and an Indonesian curry. Lamb shank was braised in a reduced sauce--sweet, floral, spicy, and musky--that blended into the fragrance of the meat so you couldn't tell where the boundaries were, the edges of one flavor oozed into the next so naturally. Orzo was the bland background, and a standard chutney provided intensity. The only thing this dish could use is one more condiment or sambal, preferably one with crunch.

Cashew-crusted snapper was one of the few disappointments, promisingly reminiscent of Mansion chef Dean Fearing's macadamia-crusted flounder, but sounding better than it tasted. This fish, which was slightly overcooked, tasted fishy--so odd that the adjective describing the essence of the thing itself should be a negative--and the cashews didn't taste at all, didn't even provide much texture, as pulverized to powder as they were. The accompanying couscous were more labeled than seasoned "tropical."

Teiichi and Costa are buddies, about the same age. Their individual restaurants have distinct personalities and appeal to the same crowd. At Tarazza, they're having a great time just doing what they like to do, hangin' together, sharing what each knows about his business and his heritage--the sense of adventure is contagious, and that makes Tarazza a fun place to go. But at the same time, they're both hands-on chefs and take this food, however outlandish and unrooted in a real place, seriously.

But the really wonderful thing about Tarazza--though the food is good, the wine list is fine, and the place is pretty--is something else entirely. Dave Williams plays that grand piano every night, the kind of sensitive, nimble-fingered jazz arrangements--"Cheek to Cheek," "Always," that sound so natural in New York bars but which you seldom hear here. So at least there's no language barrier in this parageographical place. Anyone, anywhere can understand Irving Berlin.

Tarazza, 4514 Travis St., #201, (214)521-2175. Open Monday-Saturday 5 p.m.-midnight.

Spring Roll $4.50
Tarazza Specialty $7.95
Tarazza Salad $4.95
Cashew Crusted Snapper $15.95
Grilled Quail $15.95
Lamb Curry $16.95

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