Michael Tabrizi’s eponymous restaurant was a wildly popular Federal Hill eatery back in the day, specifically the 1990s, when ethnic cuisine beyond Chinese and Italian was still relatively new to Baltimoreans. It was a time when you could generate a buzz just by presenting mild, Americanized versions of, say, Thai or Indian or Vietnamese.
Tabrizi’s, by contrast, went a long way toward popularizing Middle Eastern cuisine here by turning out excellent, authentic versions of the real thing. Housed in the space now occupied by Corks, Tabrizi’s in its first incarnation is easy to imagine, even if, like me, you’d only heard the raves secondhand: warm, cozy, and crowded with diners jazzed by the novel tastes of instantly lovable but relatively exotic flavors.
Michael Tabrizi left the restaurant—and later the food business—even as his place, co-owned with Susan Daniel, was thriving. But now, a decade after the Federal Hill venue closed, Tabrizi has recommitted to his old passion, choosing a splashy, new venue for his re-entry into a now changed local restaurant scene.
Middle Eastern food is all over the place, from neighborhood tavernas to chain restaurants, and what we used to call ethnic food is now “global cuisine.” Can this updated Tabrizi’s offer something new to the mix?
Well, yes, I think it can. Naysayers have pooh-poohed the location at 500 Harborview, which hasn’t worked out for the parade of previous restaurants that failed to make headway there. Sitting hard by the marina amidst a rash of new waterfront condos, the place is hard to find from Key Highway. (Signage, folks, signage.) But if people do find the place—and if those new condo residents flock to it, too—they’ll discover a restaurant that’s well worth searching for.
First, among the numerous places that ring the harbor, it’s one of the most pleasant dining rooms around. The view is spectacular, and the restaurant itself—done up mostly in neutrals, with an exhibition kitchen and lots of glass and open space—takes full advantage. But more importantly, unlike so many waterside food emporiums (can you say chain?), Tabrizi’s is turning out terrific, creative cuisine that doesn’t need a water view to sell it. This is a place that, like an obscure indie film with a favorite old star, needs some word-of-mouth to build its box office, but if word gets out, it could be a smash.
The restaurant has already gone through some start-up pains. When I first visited Tabrizi’s last summer, it had barely opened and was suffering from typical opening-night nerves. Service was eager but shaky, and the food seemed by turns overly ambitious and ordinary.
I remember a perfectly lovely wild salmon drowning in a heavy Stilton veloute and some unexceptional lamb kebabs. To be expected, even when the chef/owner is an old pro, and I figured a review could wait.
Since then, the original chef, Joshua Hill, has left (there seems to be an epidemic of fleeing chefs around town these days), and a new executive chef, Ryan Worthington from Florida, is manning the kitchen. Tabrizi also is doing some cooking.
I’m glad I waited. Four months after that initial visit, Señor M and I returned for a successful foray into Tabrizi’s considerable menu.
There’s a lot to choose from, and plenty of variety. You can get, for example, beautiful renditions of straightforward Middle Eastern dishes, like a marvelous appetizer of smoky baby eggplants to be swooshed through soft mounds of mild goat cheese. They’re superlative, as is a small plate of kibbeh, it’s a fragrant, savory mix of ground lamb and beef encased in a perfectly crisp shell and served with excellent tahini.
Other plates mix Middle Eastern ingredients with Asian or Mediterranean touches. An appetizer of calamari and baby octopus is sautéed and served with a sauce composed of soy, garlic, orange marmalade, and enough hot pepper flakes to give it subtle but unmistakable heat. Baby zucchini and leeks napped in gorgonzola cream sauce are a luscious inducement to eat your vegetables.
The only starter that didn’t knock our socks off was the fattoush—a bread salad that’s pretty on the plate with lots of tomatoes and green herbs, but blandly innocuous compared to the other standout beginnings.
Entrees feature that same eclectic bent—our friend’s French-inspired plate of tender calf’s liver in mustard cream sauce was as successfully executed as my chicken Casablanca, tender, dry-marinated cubes of chicken kebab sprinkled with lots of oregano and pine nuts. Another friend—one with a small appetite—thought she’d be dining modestly by ordering yet another small plate of tortalacci (a sort of giant-sized tortellini) stuffed with lobster. Enough for an entrée arrived, and good thing—we all wanted to share these tender packages of goodness.
M’s was the only plate that failed to satisfy entirely. The roast breast of duck was a fine specimen spoiled by a thick application of overly sweet sauce, a heavy-handed variation of the Asian concoction that successfully graces the calamari-octopus appetizer. This, coupled with a curiously non-Asian side of roasted fingerlings, made the dish a rare miss.
But other plusses override such glitches, for example, a lovely, reasonably priced wine list with cool, offbeat varietals like an Argentine Torrontes that pairs beautifully with seafood and Chilean Carmenere, perfect with meaty entrees. Service was pretty much flawless—knowledgeable, accommodating, efficient—and how many places can you say that about?
Desserts, true to form, range from baklava to crème brûlée, but if you want something fabulous and decidedly different, go for the kunafa, an alarmingly red but wonderful concoction of crushed phyllo, pomegranate juice, honey, and sweet Albanian cheese. Yum.
We are betting on the success of the new Tabrizi’s, once people figure out how to find it. Come summer, this is going to be one killer place for outside dining, an adult alternative to those waterfront places where the best you can hope for are an assembly line meal and a passable sex on the beach cocktail. We’ve got our fingers crossed.