Two to Tambo
The Incan word tambo refers to small inns that once populated the mountainous terrain of pre-Columbian Peru. Tambo, the new Japanese-Peruvian restaurant in Miami Beach, resembles neither a small inn nor anything you'd ever stumble across in mountainous terrain. In fact with its mosaic tile floor, sand-color walls, white tablecloths, purple orchids, black accents, and sleek sushi and ceviche bars backed by backlit bamboo walls, Tambo's Asian-inspired décor looks right at home in South Beach's yearning-to-be-chic Purdy Avenue neighborhood (near the Venetian Causeway, half a block north of Joe Allen).
A brief explanation of how these seemingly incongruous cuisines came together: Large numbers of Japanese immigrants settled in Lima during the first half of the Twentieth Century. During the Sixties and Seventies, their children sought to combine the flavors and cultures of their Japanese and Peruvian worlds. These kids are called nikkei, or the generations that are born in the Americas, and that is what Tambo dubs its cuisine.
The combination turns out to be a harmonious one, the two nations bound by a reverence for raw fish -- sushi, ceviche, and tiraditos, paper-thin slices of seafood in cevichelike dressings. Other raw attractions include carpaccio of diver scallops with tomato ceviche, rocoto (hot, red Peruvian pepper) froth, and cilantro syrup; and a "tar-tar" of tuna, hamachi, or salmon tossed with ginger, lemon grass, and scallions.
Sean Bernal is Tambo's executive chef, Oscar Tordoya the sous chef in charge of Peruvian cuisine, and Yoshiro "Aki" Komago the sushi chef. Komago formerly worked at Nobu, but while the creativity here is higher than at many sushi bars in town, the fish falls short of not only Nobu but the handful of other haute sushi lounges around town. Tambo's lobster tempura roll, for instance, wasn't nearly as good as Bond St. Lounge's, the lobster meat dry, the tempura shell soppy. Tuna, toro, and hamachi sashimi were fine, the fish pristine, the rice slightly sweet with a moist, glossy sheen. In short the sushi here is better than many, not as good as the best.
Tiraditos are more difficult to compare -- I don't know of any other place that serves them. Your choice of grouper, tuna, octopus, or lobster gets sprinkled with coarse salt, lime juice, and either aji amarillo (another hot Peruvian pepper) or aji rocoto paste. When our tiraditos sampler came to the table we asked the waiter to identify which fish was which on the plate, but he didn't have a clue. Tambo is new enough (it opened September 21) to be granted slack in the service department, but a wait team that isn't well-trained at the start rarely becomes so.
What was on the plate were flounder with aji amarillo and cilantro; scallops with red peppers, tomato, aji amarillo, cilantro, and mint; and shrimp with aji rocoto, red onion, lemon juice, and shrimp roe, which is a delicacy generally deemed distasteful by the unfamiliarized palate. I found it distasteful. The fish and shellfish were sprightly if unremarkable, dominated mostly by citrus flavors and red onions that apparently were chopped the day before, contributing to an unpleasant off-taste. Mistakes like this happen, but at $25 per plate, they shouldn't.
Ceviches are the best things on the menu. There are more than a dozen from which to choose, each containing innumerable flavoring ingredients and served as inverted domes on square plates. Fresh grouper marinated in huancaina (spicy cream made with eggs and cheese, derived from Peru's Huancayo Indians), lime juice, cilantro, hot peppers, red onion, and celery was tinged with terrific tastes. Ceviche Vietnamita was likewise scrumptious, medium-size tiger shrimp sliced in half lengthwise and tenderized by lime juice, coconut milk, nouc cham, sambal oelek, cilantro, mango, green papaya, scallions, cinnamon, basil, and cucumber.
Ceviche Nippon was awful. It's described on the menu as grouper in lime juice, tamari, ginger, lemon grass, garlic, wasabi, rocoto, sesame, scallions, and wakame, but the fish was imbued with the sort of inedibly salty taste that comes from soaking overnight in too much soy sauce. Rule of thumb regarding soy-based marinades: good today, bad tamari.
Corn chips are a common companion to ceviches in Latin America, so I suppose it isn't surprising that crackly, snacklike foods accompany Tambo's renditions (Wish serves popcorn with its version). The huancaina ceviche was sided by colossal kernels of fresh Peruvian corn (choclo) and a pile of the same kernels fried into crunchy corn nuts (cancha); taro and yuca chips came with the Vietnamita, fried wonton chips with the Nippon. I acknowledge the precedent, but still, while munching a slightly greasy wonton I wondered whether at that very moment some unfortunate food writer in Peru was dining at an expensive American restaurant and being served New York sirloin with Cheez Doodles.
Not everything at Tambo is offered in a raw state. Cooked starters include creditable crabcakes composed of jumbo lump crab, choclo, scallions, and red, yellow, and jalapeño peppers, with curry oil, chili paste, and reduced, sweetened soy for dipping; a pleasingly earthy salad composed of warm oyster mushrooms, shiitakes, and delicately crunchy enoki mushrooms in a tart umeboshi (pickled Japanese plum) vinaigrette; and two Peruvian standards -- causa limeña, a Napoleon of potato layered with tuna or crab and aji amarillo aioli; and chupe de camarones, blue spot prawns with corn, potatoes, carrots, celery, quail egg, and queso blanco.
An entrée of thick, almost rectangular sticks of "wok-lacquered" duck breast had a meatier, steaklike taste and texture to it than the slender slices more commonly served. Quite delectable, but the "tamarind chili glaze" that coated the bird tasted suspiciously like "hoisin barbecue sauce," which was supposed to come with the baby lamb chops. In either case it was close to being cloying. An accompanying sushi rice cake was worse than cloying: It was spoiled. The waiter handled the matter gracefully, offering us a different starch of our choosing.
We chose a delicious black Thai rice, darkened with soy and tamari, that we had already tasted on a prior trip to Tambo, when it had come beside a black grouper wrapped and steamed in banana leaf with ginger, sesame seeds, lemon grass, and tamari. The fish was fresh and flavorful enough but, unlike the rice, not particularly noteworthy. Sugar-cane-skewered, ginger-glazed blue prawns with mango ceviche; seared sea bass with vegetable pad thai; and pan-roasted filet mignon with huancaina purée, five-spiced onions, and caramelized scallion-garlic butter are some enticing main courses we didn't get to try.
A crème brélée sampler, presented as tiny cups of citron, ginger, mango, and Mandarin-chocolate custards with lightly brittle tops, was satisfactory. Can't say the same for the four fried, orange-scented doughnut sticks with condensed milk, a flawed and expensive take on the traditional Thai dessert. The doughnuts were dry and bland, the condensed milk boosted with orange flavor but thinned to a drippy consistency -- a dozen Krispy Kremes and can of condensed milk would have been infinitely better and would have cost much less than $9. I suppose Tambo's prices are what you'd expect: high. Sushi runs $7 to $11, ceviches $8 to $15, tiraditos $7 to $12, and entrées $21 to $29. This shouldn't stand in the way of the restaurant's success, its affluent clientele being exactly the type who won't mind paying $9 for a few doughnuts.
When Alejandro Sucre and Don Hatch opened the original Tambo in Caracas fifteen years ago, it was an immediate hit. Alina Ramirez has joined the ownership team here at this Tambo, which also has been attracting a sizable crowd -- especially after 10:00 p.m. The ceviche/sushi idea is brilliant, both foods wildly popular and perfectly suited for this climate, but this infant restaurant has some growing up to do. The kitchen needs to be more consistent, the cuisine less hit-or-miss in quality. The waiters, as I've mentioned, require better training. It might also help to turn up the thermostat a bit, make the early-evening music less like Muzak, and convince the people taking reservations over the phone to try sounding as though they don't have a hundred better things to be doing. For the time being, let's consider Tambo a tantalizing work in progress.
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