At Thally, chef Ron Tanaka comes into his own

Are you tired of sliders and carpaccio and cooks who would rather be mugging on the Food Network than making your dinner? Do yourself a favor and book a table at Thally in Shaw. The restaurant, which turns a year old in August, is led by a rebel with a cause, Ron Tanaka, who thinks food should be secondary to bringing people together around a table — even as his cooking encourages diners to linger in appreciation.

When a lot of the competition is looking right, Tanaka is looking left. One dish among several that underscore his skill is a salad composed of thin “noodles” shaved from butternut squash and celery root lightly sauteed and tossed with a curry-laced, lime-brightened yogurt. It’s a vegetarian recipe where the carnivore won’t miss the meat, and the delights are multiple. The zing and the crunch? They come from candied ginger.

In true modern American fashion, Tanaka’s cooking borrows ideas from around the world. Carnitas sope — braised pork on thick saucers of fried masa — can launch a meal; with your eyes closed, you’d swear you were eating the meaty treat, fired up with red chili sauce, in a Mexican mom-and-pop. Grilled chicken breast is among the follow-up acts. The entree veers clear of the usual with its vibrant pesto coaxed from (who would have thought?) dandelion greens and sunflower seeds. The chef calls it his “lawn” pesto.

If you dropped by the 70-seat Thally in its infancy and thought “meh,” you aren’t alone in your assessment — shared by the chef, it turns out. His early menu was a brief one, with a mere six entrees. But there was a bigger problem. “I didn’t think the food was very strong,” Tanaka says.

I liked the place, named in part for Shaw’s 19th-century Tally-Ho stables and mere blocks from where Tanaka resides. But I didn’t crave his cooking. Given the chef’s résumé, sprinkled with the names of influential kitchens, I kept tabs on Tanaka, and it’s a good thing: His latest menu features some of his strongest work yet.

Tanaka’s name might not be a household brand, but even the occasional restaurant follower is likely to be familiar with his previous employers, foremost Eric Ziebold of the four-star CityZen in the Mandarin Oriental hotel and Frank Ruta of the much-missed Palena in Cleveland Park. “They’re the guys I hear in my head when I’m cooking,” says Tanaka, who has also toiled at New Heights, Cork Wine Bar and the now-dark Michel Richard Citronelle.

Diners are the grateful recipients of those voices. In the chef’s pale pink coins of rabbit andouille, a “first bite” dressed with a tuft of watercress and emerald parsley oil, I can imagine Zeibold expounding on the joys of dressing up the familiar. And in Tanaka’s feathery tagliatelle scattered with earthy fried mushrooms, aggressive broccoli rabe and tangy sun-dried tomato, a lovely “second bite,” I can picture Ruta telling a younger chef not to get in the way of prime ingredients. Like the masterful Richard, his former employee gets a kick out of textures. Mustard-brined pork tenderloin is garnished with a fried leek that crackles between the teeth like parchment. The meat, subtly fragrant with cardamom, is served with bright snap peas as well as grilled cornbread that slowly soaks up a bourbon sauce on the plate. Every bite becomes more appealing than the last.

Tanaka co-owns Thally with Sherman Outhuok (whose daughter, Thalia, is the other inspiration behind the name) and Paolo Sacco; it’s the chef’s first time as a headliner. Hence, says the veteran with 18 years in the industry, “I’m cooking the stuff that most satisfies me, what I like to eat.” Stone fish from the Gulf of Mexico, similar to branzino, is served skin-on with a comet tail of parsley veloute. Nestled on caraway-spiked cabbage, rich duck breast is kept in check with subtle sweet-and-sour accents on the plate.

Tanaka’s tastes are mostly easy to appreciate, and you don’t have to be a food adventurer to fit in. The kitchen offers a refreshing salad of romaine spears decorated with citrus, capers and a light goat cheese dressing. A succulent flat iron steak is accompanied by cheesy scalloped potatoes and a pretty hash of snow peas. Orders are taken, and plates are delivered, by a staff as relaxed as Dad jeans.

The rare eccentric in three recent visits: farro soup based on a saffron and red pepper broth with potato “croutons” floating on top. The appetizer tasted more like an experiment than a well-rehearsed release.

Like the cooking, the design at this neighborhood retreat doesn’t follow a common script. Chairs, banquettes and bar stools in turquoise or aubergine are every bit as diverting as the vinyl graphics and vintage fonts displayed in the narrow storefront. A long, granite-topped bar attracts after-workers with a “social hour” that halves the cost of Thally’s appetizers. Six bucks gets an early bird sweet sauteed scallops with a juniper vinaigrette. Four dollars makes the aforementioned rabbit sausage with apple mustard one of the best happy hour deals around. Add a well-made cocktail, and you’ve got a bargain of a dinner party at the counter.

Tanaka might avoid the limelight, but his loosely elegant plates, considered combinations and consistency are nudging him toward greater renown.

It’s about time.

2.5 stars

Location: 1316 Ninth St. NW. 202-733-3849. thallydc.com.

Open: 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.

Prices: Appetizers $5 to $12, main courses $18 to $26.

Sound check: 74 decibels/
Must speak with raised voice.

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THE SCOOP

Location: 1316 Ninth St. NW. 202-733-3849. thallydc.com.

Open: 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.

Prices: Appetizers $5 to $12, main courses $18 to $26.

Sound check: 74 decibels/
Must speak with raised voice.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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