Midtown's growth as a dining destination in 2015 has been well-documented. New arrivals like Oporto Fooding House, Weights + Measures, Jinya Ramen and Izakaya have added to the mix that already includes popular favorites Reef, Ibiza and Holley's to transform the neighborhood into a part of town that's as well-regarded for eating as it is popular for drinking.
One new restaurant is seeking to blend Midtown's two aspects by being a place for both a great meal and a night on the town. Set to open Wednesday in a historic building on Main Street that's been home to both the Lipper Motor Car Co. and a furniture store, Tarakaan takes its inspiration from restaurants like Buddakan in New York that offer both chef-driven, Asian cuisine and a luxurious atmosphere for late night revelry.
The restaurant describes its appearance as "a 1920's inspired Shanghai surprise with a speakeasy vibe," which is reflected in the high ceilings, dark wood and two gigantic Buddahs that watch over the dining room — both created specifically for the restaurant. The sunken dining room features one way glass that allow diners to look out onto Main Street's bustling scene while still enjoying some privacy. Considering its located next to recently opened hotspot Club Clé Houston, that could be worth watching.
Owner Piran Esfahani, who also owns 55 restaurant in Rice Village, tells CultureMap that he and his business partner took their inspiration for Tarakaan from their travels around the world.
"I would call it a ‘night out’ concept. You come with a group of people, you have dinner here, but you don’t really need to go to another place for the bar," he says. "You see it in New York and Shanghai and Paris and London and Vienna. It’s a little bit of a bold concept, because in Houston there’s very little like that . . . I think Houston is ready for it."
Some diners may recall that restaurants like Katsuya and Fish and the Knife failed with similar concepts, but Esfanhani isn't concerned. He says the restaurant aspect of Tarakaan will always come first, particularly when it adds lunch and brunch in a month or two. "But on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday night, when it gets later, 10:30 or 11 pm, we want to create more of a lounge atmosphere," he says. "We’ll do that with some DJs we’ve set up next to the Buddha. The later the night goes, the more the volume of the music increases."
Maybe Tarakaan will break the mold. After all, Midtown in 2015 may be more conducive to such a concept than Upper Kirby was in 2013 or Briargrove in 2014, but the food has to deliver. Just glimpse this recent takedown of Budakaan by Eater critic Ryan Sutton for a look at what happens when it doesn't.
That responsibility falls to chef Micah Rideout, the 30-year old who brings both professional experiences from Uchi, Main Kitchen at the JW Marriott and Songkran Thai Kitchen (among others) and personal experiences from his youth growing up in Thailand.
"I want it to be authentic in the way where there’s a lot of Thai flavor when I cook because I was born there," Rideout says. "I’d say it’s as authentic as I am. I’m not very authentic. I’m like an egg; I’m white on the outside, yellow on the inside. Authenticity (is not) something I’m very worried about. I just want Southeast Asian flavors."
Tarakaan's menu skips across Southeast Asia with dishes that incorporate Thai, Indonesian, Chinese and Japanese flavors. Rideout intends for diners to share the various dishes such as a Japanese style nabe with with crispy rice noodles and shrimp, roasted cauliflower in Indonesian yellow curry and a riff on the French classic steak frites that trades fries for crispy noodles. Larger dishes include a family-sized pad thai and the colorful 10 ingredient salad (fried rice noodles, cabbage, papaya, jicama, mango, frisee, pickled ginger, cashews, snow peas and apples in a salted plum dressing).
"Everything I want to be able to be passed around the table. I want to get away from everyone having their own dish," Rideout explains. "(It’s) similar to what Erin (Smith) is doing at the JW Marriott but with a different cuisine."
Rideout offered a taste of some of the dishes, and they're mostly successful. The nabe benefits from smoky pork belly that's balanced by a sweet soy and cinnamon stock, and the steak frites arrived properly medium rare with a fun textural contrast from the crispy noodles. If anything, the dishes suffered from a tendency to being a little too sweet without enough spice to balance it; Tarakaan's customers will need to let Rideout know they can handle the heat from his Thai impulses.
Whether all this works remains to be seen, of course, but the elements for success are there: an intriguing, stylish design, a promising young chef and a rising neighborhood. Hopefully, it all comes together, and Tarakaan becomes the restaurant that brings Midtown together.
Tarakaan is open Wednesdays from 4 pm until 11 pm, Thursday through Saturday from 4 pm until 2 am with food service until 11 pm and Sunday from 11 am until 4 pm.