What’s a new restaurateur to do once it becomes clear the public isn’t interested in their enterprise? Changing concepts is hard and expensive and often means forfeiting a dream. Naturally enough, many instead try tweaks and promotions, hoping, usually in vain, that bright-colored banners, coupons, happy hour specials, changing the prices or the napkins, might bring in the reluctant public.
Danny Van took the harder road. He opened Tamaki, a cold sushi and rice place primarily serving lunch to students, in the Michigan Theater building in 2013. It was a spinoff of an East Lansing original, but, when it became clear that traffic was insufficient, the Vietnamese-born chef boldly reversed course. He partially redecorated, revamped the menu, got a liquor license, and transformed the casual spot into Taste Kitchen, a high-end, white-tablecloth, full-menu dining room.
I went soon after the concept change, when Taste still served lunch and offered happy hour specials. I enjoyed one or two things but overall was not impressed. But then I heard Van–who started as the only cook, a tough act for anyone–had hired more staff. Later, reports drifted in suggesting the restaurant had settled into the neighborhood, dropping the earlier hours to focus on dinner and attracting regular customers with good meals. It sounded like Taste was coming into its own, so I took my husband to dinner there.
And we couldn’t have been happier when we left, glowing from an excellent meal, some fine wine, and convivial service. We sat at the bar, looked over a distinctive wine list, and ordered a bottle of Spanish Basque wine with more consonants in its name than either of us could pronounce (Ameztoi Getariako Txakolina). Light, minerally, with a bit of sparkle, it provided a nice start to the meal and a refreshing counterpoint to our first plate of tender grilled octopus, tentacles sliced, studded with bits of crispy chorizo and grilled cherry tomatoes and drizzled with basil oil and balsamic vinegar. But when Chene Pena, general manager and wine steward, popped behind the bar and saw our next course–foie gras with apple chutney, chicken jus, and brioche bread pudding–he insisted on pouring us small glasses of Domaine Huet Vouvray le Haut-Lieu Moelleux. “A perfect match,” he declared. Indeed, the honey-ripe wine set off the buttery-rich liver and fruity garnish beautifully. (However, a piece of crusty brioche toast, rather than the custardy bread pudding, might have been a better foil for the velvety foie gras.)
We were equally pleased with our entrees. Chanterelles and braised leeks set off my husband’s luxuriously silky sablefish in miso sauce–a delicious seafood seldom seen here. I ordered the “Vietnamese Berkshire” pork secreto, the term used here for a steak from the top of the shoulder. (A uniform definition of the boneless piece doesn’t seem to exist among butchers, though all agree the “secret” cut is a delicious one.) Marinated and grilled to medium-rare, served with a mellow nuoc cham, piles of rice and sauteed kale, and a fried egg, it was phenomenally tasty–meaty but tender, juicy and full-flavored, and nicely enhanced by the Southeast Asian seasonings.
After I debated dessert choices with our bartender–a very knowledgeable, friendly woman–she kindly brought out both the one she recommended and a sliver of the moist chocolate-coconut cake I had also been contemplating. But she had steered me to the clear winner, a wonderfully tart rectangle of lemon curd crowned with sweet swirls of bruleed meringue and nestled next to a scoop of cream cheese ice cream.
For our second dinner we arrived late, barely half an hour before closing, but the staff was gracious, informative, and attentive. The entire crew, minus a dishwasher or two, consists of eleven close-knit members who enthusiastically promote the restaurant while endeavoring–and usually succeeding–to give informal but top-notch service.
Van changes the menu–or aspects of dishes–frequently. That second night we started with an absolutely divine (if tiny, at $15) plate of sweet raw scallop slices in a pool of nuoc cham strewn with orange supremes and radish slices. A generous bowl of creamy risotto, dotted with mushrooms and asparagus and finished with Parmesan, followed–and would have sufficed, with a side salad, as a dinner for one. But we continued with entrees.
Sides–parsnip puree, caramelized quince quarters, cinnamon-dusted acorn squash–shone as brightly as the beautifully cooked duck breast they surrounded on my husband’s plate. The star on mine was not the intricate chicken roulade–a savory ground forcemeat wrapped in the breast’s skin and surrounding moist, succulent chunks of the breast meat–or even the earthy maitake mushrooms. What kept me exclaiming was the butternut squash, shaved into fettuccine-like ribbons and tossed with plenty of butter and cheese–the best “pasta” I’ve eaten.
Dessert again brought us a nice bonus. Our server deemed my first choice–an apricot cake–not the best option and suggested the coconut panna cotta. She brought us both–again charging for only one–but this time I preferred my own choice, which arrived garnished with candied orange pieces and swirls of chocolate sauce.
Dinner is not inexpensive at Taste Kitchen, but the quality, service, and attention to detail make the bill much easier to pay. And I wouldn’t save the place only for special occasions. A few small plates–mussels, fish tacos–could, like the risotto, make a less expensive light meal. Danny Van and his crew are passionate folks–passionate about food, drink, and service–and eager to share their enthusiasm with customers. These folks are working hard, and their reinvention has succeeded.
521 E. Liberty Street
Small plates $10-$17, salads $8-$24, plates $23-$40
Mon.-Thurs. 5-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5-11 p.m., Sun. 5-9 p.m.