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.

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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