Chef Kwame Onwuachi has finally come home to New York: The Bronx native worked in the kitchens of Per Se and Eleven Madison Park; opened two restaurants in Washington, DC; was a contestant on Top Chef, season 13; and has received numerous accolades, including a James Beard award, before opening his first NYC restaurant at Lincoln Center in early November.
Named after Onwuachi’s sister, Tatiana is located in a darkened and soaring space just off the lobby of the David Geffen Hall. Lamps hanging from the ceiling look pleasantly like crinkly purple clouds. As I walked in the door the place registered as a shade too elegant as a formal institution to permit me to completely relax. Tatiana has been a difficult reservation to land since it opened, with Resy showing no tables at any time far into the future. Entire months have all the days crossed out, and what does that mean?
So I did what I often do and entered at the opening time of 5 p.m. and beelined for the bar. It provided a letterbox view into a busy kitchen, and a nice look across Lincoln Center’s central plaza, where scurrying figures crossed purposefully, headed for the subway. I started with a cocktail, a birthday daiquiri ($18) made from Banks 5 Island Rum, plus lime, grapefruit, and cinnamon, fizzed up a with a little Prosecco. The flavors melded together, so it tasted pretty much like a regular daiquiri.
The chef is of Nigerian descent, and his menu makes fascinating reading, showing influences from Jamaica (hamachi escovitch), New Orleans (head-on shrimp in Creole butter), and other hotspots of the African diaspora, plus further influences from Puerto Rico (sofrito roasted chicken) and the Middle East (black bean hummus). The menu is refreshingly simple in its organization, with nine small plates and six large plates: no sides, no pastas, no drinking snacks.
Certain dishes seemed irresistible: Egusi dumplings ($21 for three) deploy a flocculent Nigerian sauce made with crushed melon seeds — in this case, laced with crab — as a filling for three Chinese dumplings. These occupy a narrow bowl in a thick and spicy tomato sauce laced with palm oil, another Nigerian element. Gee the dumplings were good.
Another example of this type of bold thinking was a truffle chopped cheese ($28). The sandwich arrived concealed under shaved winter truffles with a pink mayo dressing as a dip. The dish was really three tiny toasted sandwiches made with white bread using aged ribeye and taleggio. But those luxury ingredients didn’t stand out as much as the chopped cheese, which was every bit as good as the classic scrambled eggs or simple buttered pasta often used as a base for truffle dishes.
The Jamaican choices of brown stew red snapper and braised oxtails both beckoned as a main course. But I went for the dish with the biggest wow factor — the short rib pastrami suya ($70), both Nigerian and Jewish at the same time. It consisted of a monster wagyu beef rib cured like pastrami and snowed with the powdered spices of suya, the northern Nigerian preparation style. This platter was an entire meal, with sweet pickled purple cabbage that might have been sent over from a German restaurant, a mustard sauce, and a small skillet of four rolls described on the menu as coco bread that was utterly delicious.
The rib was great, too, though it tasted more like corned beef than pastrami. As an example of the swashbuckling culinary style of Kwame Onwuachi, it was unsurpassed.
I finished up my meal with a multicolor Italian panna cotta ($16) with almond dukkah on top — a type of brittle incorporating sesame seeds and spices, another Middle Eastern element. As I left the restaurant heading for the 1 train, I felt exhausted and breathless, like I’d taken a quick one-hour walk around the globe.