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Tatu's menu makes its mark

It's a nightclub, too, but the food is not an afterthought

By Kit Waskom Pollard, For The Baltimore Sun

8:35 AM EST, December 12, 2012

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It's only 2 years old, but Tatu just got its first face-lift.

The pan-Asian restaurant in Power Plant Live, which opened in September 2010, reopened in October after a renovation and menu revamp.

The new space is dimly lit, with a mix of high and low tables taking the place of traditional dining tables and chairs.

Loud music and glamorous decor send the not-so-subtle message that Tatu aspires to be a nightclub — you won't see a giant sculpture of a topless mermaid or mirrored tables at your neighborhood sushi joint. But the restaurant's food and service are much better than what the average club delivers.

Around 7 on a recent Thursday night, the large space was only sparsely filled, with a few barstools and tables shared by small groups of friends and couples tucked in private corners.

We settled at a bar-height table at the front of the restaurant. When the weather is nice, the restaurant's storefront will open to a small deck, creating an indoor-outdoor space overlooking Water Street.

When those warm months arrive, the Tatu drinks menu, dominated by fruity mixed concoctions, will feel more appropriate than it did during our chilly visit. Still, the sake sangria ($9; $7 during happy hour) was nicely balanced and refreshing.

Made with sake, plum wine, litchi and citrus fruits — we tasted a lot of orange — the sangria was sweet, but not aggressively so.

Tatu's revamped menu isn't completely new, but the organization is. Grouped into categories like "starters," "small plates" and "specialties" (which are also small plates), it included lots of options but was a little confusing.

We ordered four dishes to start; they all arrived at once. Our favorite was the hamachi carpaccio ($10). Three super-thin slices of hamachi arrived in a mango ponzu sauce. Topped with a small round of red chili, the fish looked impossibly lovely.

It tasted even better. The simple preparation showed off hamachi's buttery texture. The fish melted on our tongues, playing off the crunch and slight heat of the chilies. Layering acidic, sweet and savory flavors, the ponzu sauce gave the dish oomph.

The sunset roll ($15; $12 during happy hour) was large, but next to the excellent hamachi, it lacked excitement.

It was a perfectly serviceable sushi roll, with rice neatly packed around a fresh and crunchy combination of spicy tuna, chilies, crispy shallots, cucumber and avocado.

But its selling point, a dish of white truffle soy sauce for dipping, didn't deliver on the heady promise of truffle. It may have been masked by the chef's generous hand with wasabi.

The missing truffle was the evening's biggest disappointment — and it really wasn't much of one.

Also on the table were wild mushroom pot stickers ($9; $4.50 during happy hour) and a small plate of spare ribs ($11).

The pot stickers, with earthy mushroom filling and soy citrus butter sauce, felt substantial, despite their small size. The butter was more soy than citrus, making each bite rich and woodsy.

When the spare ribs arrived, we worried that our ladylike chopstick skills might not be up to snuff. Typically, ribs aren't great date food or an ideal nosh in a dark, clubby space like Tatu. Fortunately, the meat on these ribs, glazed with a sweet plum and sesame sauce, was so tender it fell off the bone.

After four small plates, we weren't quite full, so we ordered a plate of calamari ($9; $4.50 during happy hour).

Piled high on a bed of greens, the calamari were lightly breaded and fried to a tender, not rubbery, texture. The squid itself was standard, but an accompanying miso lime aioli was a nice surprise. Tangy and creamy, it was a tasty alternative to marinara.

From the time we walked into Tatu until the moment we ordered dessert, our service was spot on. A friendly waitress kept our drinks filled and delivered food promptly, and a manager checked on us occasionally.

But once we ordered dessert, things slowed down. After several water refills and a few "it'll be right out" messages from the staff, our dessert — the banana macadamia spring roll ($12) finally arrived.

Pastry-wrapped banana and cheesecake were deep-fried, then carefully plated with a scoop of dulce de leche ice cream and a few squares of macadamia brittle. The dish was sweet, tart, crunchy and big enough for at least four people.

After so many small plates, the oversize dessert was a shock. But it made sense. Even with all its mood lighting and swanky decor, Tatu is more than just a place to be seen.

It's a place to be with other people. To share — small plates, dessert or just conversation.

Tatu

Back story: Opened in Power Plant Live in 2010, Tatu just underwent a renovation, opening up walls and replacing traditional dining tables with low-slung furniture, giving the space more of a lounge feel. The pan-Asian menu was tweaked, as well, shifting its focus from entrees to smaller plates designed for sharing.

Parking: Street parking; Pier V Garage on East Pratt Street

Signature dish: The hamachi carpaccio won't fill you up, but the small bite is worth ordering for its velvety texture and complex flavor. Paper-thin slices of rich fish, each topped with a sliver of spicy red chili, swim in a mango ponzu sauce that's sweet, citrusy and savory all at once.

Where: 614 Water St.

Contact: 410-244-7385; http://www.tatuasianrestaurant.com

Open: Wednesday and Thursday, 5 p.m. to midnight; Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.

Credit cards: All major

Reservations: Accepted for groups of 6 or more

Rating: ***

[Key: Superlative: *****; Excellent: ****; Very Good: ***; Good: **; Promising: *]