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Going for Broke

Joe Rocco

Seminole Paradise has the look of Xanadu -- a vast though not particularly stately pleasure dome rising above the desert sands of West Hollywood. You can see it from a distance even on a rainy night, throwing as much light as a small meteor, fantastical as the City of Oz. And there is something thrilling about it; the pulse quickens as you turn into the driveway, crawling behind a line of cars that seems to stretch for miles, while parking attendants in yellow rain slickers wave you past "Lot Full" sign after "Lot Full" sign. That's when the thrill begins to waiver toward dreadful premonition. You haven't brought an umbrella. There will be no valet parking tonight (by 8 p.m., the valets have thrown in the towel). It's going to be a long, wet run to Tatu Asian restaurant, your destination.

We ran through the rain. Despite the deluge, fountains everywhere in the complex were spurting away merrily, and we found ourselves after a while in a square rimmed by a faux Chinese temple; a faux Mexican hacienda; and Tatu, a Darth Vader of a building with a fa├žade as black and featureless as a slab of onyx. We were 45 minutes late for our reservation, but no worries: The big, dark, two-tier space was empty but for a handful of couples and a table or two of single girls quietly sipping cocktails. The place had the feel of an empty dance club; we'd given ourselves away as hopeless rubes.

As in the hot Manhattan clubs of the '80s, everything at Tatu is black and silver: the placemats and napkins, the undulating banquette, and the semiprivate tables enclosed by sparkling curtains suspended from floating, aluminum rings. Even the bathrooms are black on black -- you have to hold out your hands like a blind man and stumble bravely forward to find them. The only touch of color is the occasional dab of brilliant cherry red in the lights behind the bar. It's all very luxe looking and not unpleasant. The seats are comfortable, the service brisk and friendly.

We'd heard about Tatu from an NPR program that mentioned the geisha floor show organized by Pamela Canellas' Hot Jam dancers on Friday nights. Tatu is one of a nationwide list of restaurants called into being by Jody Pennette, CEO of CB5 Restaurant Group, a company that sets up "standardized systems for high-concept venues" (they're also responsible for the universally acclaimed Pao in South Beach). Our menu identified the chefs as Kam Choi Chan, Chinese master chef formerly of Pao; Joe Babcox, executive chef; and Kaoru Ishii, sushi master. As for the word Tatu, we read, it "translates as the point at which different cultures converge." We were welcomed to "an explosive celebration of Asian cooking."

You can order from Chinese, Pan-Asian, and Japanese categories, mixing and matching small and large plates. But really, the food at Tatu is about as authentically Asian as a Charlie Chan movie. As Chan once said, "Talk cannot cook rice." A glance at the "Chinese" appetizers will tell you right away that you're in La-La Land -- the last time I saw "Crab Rangoon" on a menu was years ago at Trader Vic's, the kitschy Polynesian San Francisco institution credited with inventing it. We ordered the Rangoon, for old times' sake (it's $12). And a couple of other small plates to start: pan-fried pepper oysters ($14) and wild mushroom pot stickers ($9), both from the Pan-Asian menu.

At prices like these, the food ought to be brilliant, eh? We wrung out our wet clothes and tried to warm up over a cocktail and a pot of tea. The cocktail list was decadent: An Asian pear sakatini is $12, a mai tai (another Trader Vic's invention) is $10, and the "triple lucky happiness margarita" is $12. Choose your tea from a list, all $2.50, brewed from bags but served in a sweet little black iron pot.

My triple happiness margarita, alas, brought me only single, rapidly dwindling happiness. The menu described it as "Patron Silver [tequila], fresh orange and lemon juice, Grand Marnier, served with three limes." Our waitress didn't ask the crucial questions: salt or no salt? On rocks or up? I like mine saltless and iceless, but I got both. There was no orange juice. And only one lime.

Our small plates arrived. They looked pretty: triangular dishes with the requisite dashes and squiggles and a round one for the oysters -- each nestled inside a Chinese soup spoon. The Rangoons were fried wonton packages containing cream cheese with bits of green onion and, I guess, diced peppers. They were served with a cherry-colored sweet-and-sour sauce. There was nary a speck of crab anywhere. Maybe the chef had whispered the word crab over the plate before he sent them out. Not that they weren't tasty -- I mean, I love fried cream cheese. But generally, the recipe calls for a 50/50 mix of crab and cheese. These crabless Rangoons probably cost the kitchen less than $1.50. I was already starting to feel like the guy who spends his entire paycheck for a massage with no happy ending.

The mushroom filling of the wild mushroom pot stickers tasted only of shiitakes. Generally wild mushroom implies mushrooms that are grown wild -- like matsutakes, chanterelles, porcinis, or truffles -- not cultivated mushrooms like the shiitake. Any wild mushrooms (and I had my doubts) had been ravished by the stronger shiitakes, which have a distinctive flavor. The soy lemon sauce for dipping was fine, and the pencil-thin asparagus hadn't been overcooked, for which I was grateful.

The blurb under the Pan-Asian portion of the menu describes "Chinois cooking that showcases the... fusion of Asian ingredients with French sauces and technique." That gave me pause. Asian ingredients with French sauces sounded like a recipe for disaster. Indeed, our pan-fried pepper oysters "with caviar and cucumber sauce" were astonishingly ill-conceived. Bait and switch applied here too: the "caviar" was multicolored tobiko. The half-dozen pan-fried oysters tasted bitter and metallic and weren't helped by their moats of cream sauce festooned with fish eggs.

A chef set a whole crispy snapper ($29) before us, promising to be back with rice. The "wok fried" snapper "with sweet and spicy glaze" had been deep fried (in a wok, maybe) and doused with the same cherry-red sauce that came with the Rangoons. It tasted like melted pepper jelly, sweet and spicy, yes, but with zero complexity; there's no conceivable reason to drown a snapper in it. The little snapper was fresh-tasting, though, and nicely cooked. We also had the grilled Shanghai beef ("NY strip with hot oil, cilantro, shallots and soy"), dressed in a pleasant, syrupy pan reduction and decorated with shoestring potatoes. The sliced meat tasted more like sirloin than New York strip (I couldn't be sure, since it came sliced), but after the cream cheese and the shiitakes and the red sugar sauce, my taste buds were shot. It was decent, a little tough in places and tender in others, cooked rare and juicy. Still, its $28 tag was clearly calculated with Paris Hilton or Topekan tourists in mind. The promised rice never appeared.

Banana macadamia spring rolls for dessert ($8) were done up attractively. Everything at Tatu is presented with panache, in fact, and I suppose if you didn't know better, you could allow yourself to drift into thinking its beauty more than skin deep. Dense banana cheesecake filled sliced, salty "spring rolls;" and a scoop of flavorless "dulce de leche" ice cream was ringed with chunks of Macadamia brittle. Whoa, talk about a convergence of cultures! My digestive system was by now objecting to the multiculti party of ingredients. As European cooks know, how foods marry inside the stomach is just as crucial as the fusion of flavors on the plate. "Chinois" was evidently not ideal. I probably should have skipped that glass of chilled Momokawa pearl sake ($9, misidentified on the menu as Moonstone), but then again, its perfumy coconut vapors were the highlight of the evening.

We paid our exorbitant tab and slouched out. Our trip to Tatu had broken the bank, but we knew the odds. We probably weren't the only suckers in Paradise who were going to lose big.

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