But Seriously, Folks … TanDa Only Looks Trendy

There’s no velvet rope outside TanDa. But at first glance, this

restaurant, which is in a former O.T.B. parlor on Park Avenue South, looks

every bit the trendy new lounge. The dark, candle-lit dining room on the ground

floor boasts the latest feature of cutting-edge restaurant design: the

16-foot-high curved wall. It’s covered in deep-blue and silver panels of

brushed silk and snakes along a row of wide banquettes set with black lacquered

tables. The maître d’ led us past them to a niche of booths on raised

platforms. Vietnamese fishing baskets acting as lampshades cast spidery shadows

over the ceiling, and the tables are laid with votive candles, palmwood

chopsticks and those little sprouting bamboo plants that street vendors sell

around Chinatown and Soho. The waiter came to take the order for drinks in an

open-necked shirt in dark blue silk that made him look like a 60’s pop singer.

I asked for the Grüner Veltliner, an Austrian white wine which was available by

the glass. He shook his head. “You’re better off with the Pinot Grigio,” he

said.

“It’s not thin and acidic,” he added, as if reading my mind. “It

has fruit.” He launched into an analysis of the improvements in Italian whites.

“I’ll bring you a glass, plus a taste of the Grüner Veltliner to compare. I

normally love that wine, but this particular bottle is not very good.” He was

right.

They take their wine and their food seriously at TanDa. The

restaurant is owned by brothers Andy and Chris Russell, formerly of Moomba (the

late-90’s hot spot, where the food-if anyone bothered to notice-was very good).

It’s named after a Vietnamese poet, T’an Da (1889-1939), a charismatic figure

who seems to have been quite the bon vivant (one of his poems is titled “Drunk

Again”). The Southeast Asian menu reads like a collaboration between the poet

and Ronald Firbank: “Roasted spring chicken, cardamom fondue, sour mango

compote and wilted morning glory.”  One

of my companions ordered the prawns. “They’re being stewed in a coconut broth

with lemongrass, oyster mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes,” said our waiter.

“Fair enough,” my friend replied.

The chef, Stanley Wong, was formerly at the Mandarin Oriental

Hotel in Hong Kong, where he was responsible for all of the chain’s

restaurants, including Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Vong. He takes classic Asian

dishes and reconstructs them, making them modern without, as he puts it,

“losing the integrity of the original flavors.”

The busboy brought around some warm, beehive-shaped brioche rolls

that were studded with chili and slivers of kaffir lime leaf and sprinkled with

fleur de sel. They were great spread with kasundi, a lovely tomato jam spiced

with cumin and coriander. You also get a pretty tray of relishes and dipping

sauces: nuoc cham (a fish sauce with palm sugar, garlic and carrot), nam prik

(fish sauce, shallots, lime juice and chili), fiery sambal and a five-spice

salt in a wood mortar and pestle.

We started off with velvety seared beef tenderloin carpaccio that

came with a bracing green papaya salad dressed with chili and lime juice.

Instead of the usual cole slaw, the excellent crabcake-moistened with coconut

mayonnaise and sautéed in a panko crust-was served with julienned mango and

nashi pear dotted with red pepper oil. One of Mr. Wong’s most impressive

creations is a tian of wide rice noodles layered with oxtail and eggplant and

topped with a quenelle made, of all things, of puréed edamame. The gelatinous

pieces of braised meat were flavored with star anise, the roasted eggplant

seasoned with chili, garlic and lime. It’s

a wonderful dish. Juicy, salt-crusted sea scallops were good too, afloat

on an evanescent cucumber foam with pineapple sambal and kaffir lime leaves.

The crisp prawns, seared in a rice coating, were dramatically

presented in a black dish that emphasized the creamy whiteness of the fresh

coconut-milk broth. Rice, wrapped in a banana leaf, was served on the side.

Alas, my friend-who was by now feeling at home with the fusion thing-thought it

was an Asian take on the burrito and tried to eat it leaf and all.

Thick slices of glazed roast duck came with a sauce made with

galangal and palm sugar, alongside a pea

shoot salad. Turmeric-scented striped bass looked like Stonehenge: two

filets topped with peanut sauce propped up on a bed of rice noodles seasoned

with nuoc mam and basil.

Pastry chef Wendy Israel’s

desserts include a very rich and enjoyable Napoleon made with bitter chocolate

slices layered with coconut-infused marshmallow, five-spice almond brittle and

sake-soaked raspberries. Black sticky rice was sweetened with coconut and

topped with crème frâiche, encircled by charred mango slivers. There was also a

warm molten chocolate cake with Vietnamese coffee ice cream. But if you want to

stay close to home, there’s “milk and cookies.” Baked to order, they arrive

warm and meltingly soft, served with coconut milk for dipping. Food fit even

for a poet’s delicate digestion. But Seriously, Folks … TanDa Only Looks Trendy