Miami restaurant review: Tamarina's Italian food starts with a splash then flounders

Hopping on the crudo craze, the new Tamarina restaurant in the base of the 40-story Brickell World Plaza puts raw seafood front and center.

Shavings of sashimi-like yellowtail snapper are delicately accented with snappy cucumber, balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Paper-thin slices of wahoo, scallops, salmon and sea bass are similarly splashed, spiked and perfumed with lemon, thyme, capers and scallions. 

Joined by carpaccio, caviar, tartare and a respectable oyster bar, the new wave of raw dominates half the menu at Tamarina, a coastal Italian restaurant that offers a stylish backdrop for one of the latest food trends. Dive deeper into the menu, however, and you run the risk of hitting a shallow bottom.

Fish entrées are just fine. Hog snapper, on a bed of fregola, tiny clams and wild mushrooms, had a thin, seared crust over flaky, moist meat. A thick fillet of glistening Chilean sea bass, drizzled with lemon juice, olive oil, minced garlic, oregano and parsley, sat primly on broccoli and squash that lacked flavor, but still had snap.

Veal Milanese — two giant planks of breaded meat beaten thin — was presented grandly on a large cutting board, with a lightly oiled salad served on the side. Marinated lamb chops on black quinoa were juicy, although unremarkable.

Where we skinned our noses, time and again, was on the simple pasta dishes. For a restaurant that bills itself as Italian, more care needs to be taken with noodles that are allegedly handmade and fresh. The kitchen would have done better reading the directions on the side of a Barilla box.

Spaghetti alle vongole was so overcooked that the pasta slid off the fork and was disintegrating into tiny bits in the thin clam broth. Small shells were either clamped shut or empty; we found the meat of precisely one clam. The dish looked more like a college kid’s cheap, boiled ramen bowl than a meal at a posh dining establishment where the wine menu spans continents and charges roundtrip airfare for a single bottle.

Our pasta Bolognese was disappointingly dry and mealy. Rubbery, overcooked lobster chunks were lost on dry land atop spaghetti noodles — no linguine available that night — that were, finally, al dente and edible.

The restaurant’s elegant, sophisticated style makes the contrast even more jolting. Long, sheer curtains hang from the high ceiling. Ivory upholstered chairs and couches surround dark wood tables and bars, reflected in mirrored walls, chandeliers and table-top brass lamps. A wrap-around patio fronting Brickell Avenue is buffered from traffic by a waist-high glass wall and transparent blinds. 

In the former Lippi location, Tamarina and its raw fare are a logical leap for owners Tunu and Yona Puri, along with restaurateur Arjun Waney, fellow investors in the successful sushi-centric Zuma less than a mile away in downtown Miami.

On its first take, Tamarina promises the same attention to detail that earned Zuma its stellar reputation. Diners with reservations are sent text reminders on their cellphones. Front-of-house staff is attentive and polite. Upon seating, a trio of complimentary warm bread is delivered with three bowls of roasted eggplant spread, spicy olive oil and fagioli white bean salad.

But the experience starts to break down mid-meal, when the phalanx of servers and managers mysteriously fades away. On two visits, our table went unattended for long stretches. One time, all flatware in front of us was removed, never to return. We had to flag down a busboy for utensils so we could eat our entrees.

One sad Sunday evening, surrounded by just a few tables of older couples and families with strollers and toddlers, we waited almost 20 minutes to get a dessert menu.

Desserts did rise above the mundane surface — Italian bomboloni doughnuts, Key lime torta — but our deconstructed, bombe-like tiramisu with espresso gelee was more of a marvel than marvelous.

Tamarina needs to master the fundamentals if it wants to swim in the deep end. 

Critics dine anonymously at the Miami Herald’s expense.