Guess who’s back?!
Welcome to 2016! We are ready to hit the ground running here in Boston. Since our departure three years ago, restaurants have closed thanks to gentrification (we miss you already Xinh, Xinh – come back soon) and others have opened with the fanfare of celebrity we had gotten accustomed to in Atlanta.
The second restaurant by chef Tiffani Faison of Sweetcheeks Q is a much needed breath of fresh air in a neighborhood dominated by over priced, lack luster sports bars and chains. On the other side of the cuisine coin: it’s caused a moral dilemma in this Bostonians’ heart.
So here’s what you need to know.
TigerMama’s menu is a tour of Southeast Asia — Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia. It’s meant to be a creative nod to these cuisines, not necessarily authentic.
TigerMama seats 135 with a few tables equipped with lazy Susans, which is perfect for sharing a menu made up of small and medium sized plates. The ‘chefs table’ as the host called it, is located in the back of the restaurant over looking the open kitchen. It’s unclear if this spot will ever function in the true sense of a ‘chefs table.’ Right now it’s being used a communal table for people who didn’t realize you need to call two weeks in advance for a dining room seat on the weekends.
The space also features a living wall with herbs for the kitchen. A bar located at the front of the restaurant offers full service and is first come, first served. The second bar in the back is called the “Tiki Bar” and focuses on shaved iced cocktails. It’s also full service.
The few times I’ve gone everyone has been very helpful and friendly. The bartenders are incredibly knowledgable when it come to the cocktails and the menu items. The hosts were friendly and helpful when I asked them about a hundred questions regarding the layout of the restaurant, reservations and seat availability. There was one bartender who served a side of sass with one of our dishes, but…we think that’s part of his shtick. More on that later.
As far as how the food comes out: don’t expect to order three entrees for three people and have them served at the same time. These dishes are meant to be shared and will come from the kitchen as soon as they’re ready. The pace is manageable but if you’re not prepared for it, you can be left wondering.
As far as prices goes: they’re expensive. But then again, we can say the same for every other Boston restaurant that isn’t serving its drinks in plastic cups. Beer prices are comparable to the area and they serve everything from BeerLao to Sam Adams.
Pig Rice ($15) bacon, braised frilled pork, issan sausage, pork sung
This dish is a pork lovers dream. You think the plate would be a salt slick, but the depth of flavor was incredible. Savory and salty…this dish is perfect for 2 people to share.
Hokkien Mee ($15) rich oyster sauce braised noodles, crispy pork and tons of onions
Originally I wanted to order the Pad Thai, but I’m glad I went for this dish instead. I split it with a friend and we were both fighting over the last noodle.
Lobster Fresh Rolls ($13) charred lobster, bright veggies, spicy silky peanut sauce
I don’t know if I can speak to this lobster being “charred” (I didn’t taste it or see it) but it was fresh and they certainly didn’t skimp. The roll is cut into pieces that will remind you of maki. We just went for it and ate with our hands. The peanut sauce was delicious, but sparse. You won’t find a pool of sauce in a bowl here. This is probably my favorite dish on their menu so far. It’s light, fresh and indulgent. I could have had two more.
Short Rib Rendang ($16) rich coconut Malaysian style curry, crispy peanuts and toasted coconut & Jasmine Rice ($3)
This dish was confusing to me. Flavor wise: it was obscenely delicious. I could have swam in the broth. Our bartender suggested the side of rice, and even though you could get away with not ordering it (it’s not THAT rich) I would suggest it just so you have a means of transportation for eating all that broth.
The meat itself melted in your mouth and fell apart when I prodded it with my chopsticks. The only downside of the dish was the toasted coconut. It added an unnecessary sweetness to the whole picture. The broth was already the perfect balance of sweet and savory. The coconut put it over the edge.
Shrimp Saigon ($19) coconut marinated and grilled shrimp, fish sauce, tomato vinaigrette
OKAY THIS DISH ALMOST MADE ME GIVE UP ON TIGERMAMA. I won’t lie. The pictures I saw on all of the Boston publications that have been reviewing TigerMama had me all excited. The presentation in person looked just like the press photos…which was a plus in my book. But then as it sat in front of me I realized I had just paid almost $5 a shrimp and I didn’t quite know why. Oh, the magic of marketing. It’s a brilliant thing.
The first shrimp I had tasted…not right. My knee jerk reaction was maybe there was something off with the shrimp. The char marks on it were beautiful, but I quickly realized something wasn’t meshing. My best guess was maybe it had been charred on an open flame and the gas stove gave it an “off” flavor. I asked the bartender for clarification on how the shrimp was prepared. He got oddly defensive and told me that “those little black marks are because they’re charred…”
I’m so glad that in 2016 I have still have big strong men to explain the hard things in life to me…!
Phew! By the way, he never did answer my question…but he did tell me that the presentation was supposed to evoke the feeling that you’re on a beach, on vacation. Yeah, it sure did. I often spend a lot of money on something I could get at home for half the price because I’m on vacation.
The tomato vinaigrette was delicious. It made downing the shrimp (and my pride) a little easier. At this point I had just forked out $20 for shrimp. There was no way I wasn’t going to eat them. Let’s be real.
I mean, worse comes to worse you DO get a half a bushel of mint with this presentation.
Verdict? Skip this dish – but the rest are worth a revisit and definitely make me confident going forward to try the rest of the menu.
For the Fenway neighborhood, TigerMama is a great addition. But between its over the top presentations (in some cases) and the patrons who look like they’d never step foot into the countries where the food they’re eating originated from, it makes me wonder if this is what we can expect to see in the way of Asian cuisine in Boston. It’s safe to say TigerMama is going to hold its own against Ming Tsai’s Blue Dragon. With gentrification and high rent rates are kicking out small, local spots in Chinatown…I hope that Boston diners still give the smaller, local spots a chance to thrive too.