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A Phoenix-like Rebirth at Tamarind

By Chuck Sudo in Food on May 19, 2006 6:20PM

2006_05_tamarind1.jpgWhen Chicagoist sees the ever-expanding restaurant options in the South Loop these days, we cannot help but be awestruck. Fans of haute cuisine or Zagat ratings can head to Custom House or Opera; budget-minded diners looking for something above average have Gioco and the Chicago Firehouse; habitues of cheap eats can head to Grace O'Malley's, Taste of Siam, Eleven City Diner, and Hackney's Printer's Row; the truly suicidal can grab a late night bite at the South Loop Club.

2006_05_tamarind2.jpgOne of the restaurants that didn't make it was Charming Wok, on Wabash and Harrison. The handful of times Chicagoist ate there were uneventful and limited to take-out, so we didn't have to spend any more time than we had to in their depressing dining room. Seriously, the feng shui at Charming Wok could not be changed by simply moving some chairs around. Maybe it had something to do with the restaurant sharing a building with a Travelodge, and having that vibe seep into the walls. Or, as owner Chen (Lisa) Ko said, "The landlords were very bad".

Regardless, Ko decided to cut her losses. The old Charming Wok location is now occupied by Thai Spoon. Ko moved across the street - a few storefronts north of the old Thai Spoon location - with her new restaurant, Tamarind. The new location has done wonders for Ko. There's a positive energy and renewed ambition at Tamarind that's far removed from what Chicagoist remembers from Charming Wok. We've got our full review after the jump.

Ko has marketed Tamarind as "sushi/sake/eclectic Asian cafe". In other words, it's "pan-Asian", similar to what she was doing at Charming Wok. However, Ko and her management team have pared down the menu significantly, focusing on dishes that are quick to prepare and easy to describe for curious diners. Even pared down, the menu is still extensive, from hot-and-cold appetizers, sampler plates, and classic chinese dishes like Peking duck and General Tso's chicken, to fixed price dinner packages ($31 per person). Their menu has a simple key system, describing spicy dishes, house specialties, and the nation of origin for each dish on the prix fixe entrees. Diners can either sit in the lounge-like vibe of the dining room - furnished with slate and wood floors, a bamboo wall bathed in green light, and a dj booth for the weekends - or take a seat in front of the sushi bar.

2006_05_tamarind3.jpgChicagoist started our dinner off with a "spicy windy maki" (made with spicy salmon, cucumber, cilantro, jalapeno, and topped with avocado). The roll was truth in advertising. Chicagoist made the mistake of using too much wasabi, which set off a five-alarm blaze in our mouth. Maki rolls at Tamarind range from $8-$15; classic rolls, nigiri, and sashimi average $3, with a few at $5 or more. If you're dining with a large party, try a platter ($18 for sushi; $25 for sashimi), or order the "sushi love boat" for $65 and re-enact the season premiere of "The Sopranos".

2006_05_tamarind4.jpgOur next dish was a Thai-inspired recommendation of Ko's, the beef lettuce wrap. This dish was a martini glass filled with thinly sliced, spicy beef, centered in a plate and served with slices of romaine lettuce and tomatoes. Diners spoon the beef onto the lettuce slices, which they then wrap and eat like a taco or fajita. This is a wonderful appetizer and great way to start off a meal at Tamarind. Tamarind also has a stir-fry bar, a la Flat Top Grill and Mongolian Barbecue, that's sure to be a hit with the kiddies.

2006_05_tamarind5.jpgOur one complaint was with the dessert. The banana chocolate egg roll was a nice idea that was ruined by the inclusion of orange slices. A dessert like this would have been better served with some form of berry as a fruit pairing, like strawberry or raspberry. Orange may complement banana in flavor, but not when it's drenched in chocolate. All three courses were washed down with a banana boba drink. Tamarind does advertise a wine and martini menu, but they're still working on obtaining their liquor license. Until they do, they heartily recommend getting a bottle of your favorite libation from their neighbor, Warehouse Liquors. Or come down to HotHouse and let the Bridgeport Bureau make you a martini that will stop your heart.

Chicagoist had a great time dining at Tamarind, our dessert aside. The biggest impression left on us was the rejuvenation with which Ko walked about. While we were eating she would show us other dishes from the menu and hype Tamarind's inclusion on this week's "Metromix" tv show. That type of infectious enthusiasm can go a long way toward a restaurant's chances of success. Ko's staff was definitely feeding off it. It's as though Ko realizes that Tamarind affords her a second chance, and she's not wasting it.

Tamarind is located at 614 South Wabash. They're open daily from 11 a.m. until 11 p.m., and the telephone number is (312) 379-0970