Tatu is the brainchild of a Connecticut-based "boutique restaurant development group" named CB5, and something about Tatu's stylish ways appealed to the Cordish Cos., the developers of Power Plant Live, which actively courted CB5 to bring Tatu into its downtown Baltimore dining and entertainment district.
Tatu is very pretty place, but not in a way that makes you feel shabby. A promotional video for Tatu on YouTube refers to aspects of the interior as "Shanghai Deco," which sounds about right. There's a pleasing sweep to the series of dining rooms and lounge spaces. That familiar chillin' palette, a burnished burgundy, predominates, but it's broken up by soothing blue and aquamarine wall decorations. There's an inviting mix of intimate banquettes and communal high tables. I think you know what kind of experience you're in for at Tatu at first glance, in the same way you'd know what to expect from a Red Lobster after having just walked through the door.
Part of Tatu's effective strategy is in not taking its menu of sushi and various Chinese classics too seriously, and not asking its customers to, either. That's my theory anyway. For instance, you shouldn't be surprised that the cocktail menu is sickly-sweet stuff like watermelon mojitos and lychee-tinis, that the sushi bar menu is gimmicky and fattened up with too much avocado, and that the kitchen menu, a mix of "Hunan, Szechuan, Mandarin, and Chinois classics prepared with authentic Asian ingredients," is obviously just dressed-up mall food.
You shouldn't take it too badly either when most of the food at Tatu turns out to be prettily presented but not very good. On our visit, the general rule was that a thing arrived, made no real impression, and was taken away.
For the restaurant's own reasons, tables are asked to place the order for their entire meal at one time. Among the appetizers, only the Tatu spare ribs, slow-roasted and coated with plum wine and sesame sauce, got our attention. They were succulent and tasty. Wild mushroom pot stickers didn't come off. They need a dash of vinegar to offset the soy citrus butter they're served with, and broccolini is substituted for asparagus without comment. The potential pleasures of an appetizer featuring sake-steamed clams, red chilies and Thai basil are undone by cluttered presentation.
The dozen-item entree list features things like sesame chicken, Shanghai beef and pepper-seared steak, which are more or less all the same thing. The few items that sound a little out of the ordinary, like the charred rare tuna with vanilla teriyaki glaze and yuzu mashed potatoes, can also sound off-putting..
We chose the crispy orange beef and the Hong Kong noodles, just because they sounded like the kind of thing Tatu might put a clever twist on. But the noodles, a big portion, loaded up with strips of pork, white meat chicken and limp shrimp, were excessively salty, and the orange beef was missing that floury crunch that makes it such a guilty pleasure.
Later came a few maki rolls and neither the hamachi jalapeno roll (yellowtail, asparagus, jalapeno, avocado, cilantro and spicy aioli) nor the Marilyn Monroll (shrimp tempura, jumbo lump crab salad, scallops, cucumber, avocado and spicy aioli) showed off the sushi bar to any advantage. Of course, rolls like these aren't a fair test of a sushi bar, but they're the kind of thing Tatu wants you to have.
Dessert was more of the same — a flan with coconut shavings that tasted just like marzipan and an overly chunky pomegranate-ginger granita.
The only real surprise throughout the evening is how gracious and good the service is. It made a difference in how we felt about Tatu. And by the end of the evening, we were thinking that Tatu would be a good first-date place, especially for people that like to dress up a little for a night out. Tatu would also work well as a launching site before a show at Rams Head. It wouldn't work as a dining destination, but Tatu succeeds very well at what it sets out to do, which essentially is to send you out into the night feeling better than when you came in.
When you ask for your check at Tatu, the server brings over two parting gifts for the table: little temporary tattoos with Chinese characters and, its signature grace note, a big fluffy cone of green-apple cotton candy. It's funny how happy cotton candy makes people.
Where: 614 Water St.
Hours: Open for dinner Tuesday-Sunday
Prices: Appetizers, $6-$16. Entrees, $18-$30
[Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭]