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
“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
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.