Dan Van is the chef who opened Tamaki on East Liberty last December. He says it was partly the brutal winter that did it in before it ever really got going. His cafeteria-line sushi and rice bowls tailored to a student budget “did well for two months, but it was too cold. People didn’t want to eat cold rice.” He moved swiftly to talk the owners, a group of Lansing investors, into cutting their losses and moving in an entirely different direction.
Remodeled as Taste Kitchen, the restaurant now targets the more lucrative evening entertainment scene. A liquor license has been approved and is on the way.
“I wanted ingredients that belong in fine dining, but we didn’t really want to be fine dining,” Van says. “I wanted it to be more casual.” And he also wanted his menu to be “local”–though not too literally. There are lots of options nearby to get meat and dairy products, but as for produce “all you can get around here in the winter is a few root vegetables,” he laughs.
He opens his laptop and shows off some of the suppliers he’s working with. Most vegetables come from Chef Garden in Ohio, which has its own greenhouses. For fish, he uses Sea to Table. Tapping and clicking a bit to find his account, he says, “Today I bought fresh oysters, clams, mussels, tuna, and striped bass from Montauk, New York, and Narragansett, Rhode Island” via the Sea to Table website. “Fishermen pack it themselves and ship it directly.”
Taste Kitchen’s menu, printed fresh each day on creamy paper, gives stripped-down descriptions that beg to be asked about: “Pork: coffee/butternut squash/Brussels sprouts/maple” reads one dinner entree for $19. Lunch is in the $9-$11 range. Van was born in Vietnam and often includes pho and banh mi on his menus. In early November he was working on a five-course vegetarian tasting menu for $30 and also hoping to secure a “dinner and a show” deal with the Michigan Theater.
Taste Kitchen also runs an elaborate coffee, tea, and juice operation (coffee supplied by Ypsi’s Ugly Mug). Manager Kyle Klobucar says that while it’s not an early morning restaurant, the lunch menu always includes breakfast. Good coffee and breakfast under the same roof, he says, is hard to find. “You can get good coffee a lot of places around town, but usually all you can get with it is a pastry. Sometimes I go to a diner and brave the coffee just to get a good breakfast.”
Taste Kitchen, 521 E. Liberty, 369-4241. Lunch: Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m-3 p.m., Sat. & Sun. 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Dinner: daily 5-10 p.m. tastekitchena2.com