It’s not easy being new in town.
Last spring a gorgeous couple, Perfecte Rocher and Alia Zaine, blew into Seattle, like so many newcomers abrim with ambition to make their cultural mark in a city of so many natural charms. She is an LA restaurant vet who knows front of house; he a native son of a little village near Valencia, in Spain, who grew up in two generations of family restaurants and whose skills had propelled him through a European welkin of Michelin stars. He staged at the famed El Bulli in Catalonia, then went on to open his own Valencian place in LA. Clearly Rocher had chops, which for a guy whose name is Perfecte had to be a relief.
But alas—they got Seattle a little wrong. Rocher and Zaine planted Tarsan i Jane (Tarsan was his grandfather’s nickname) along busy Leary Way in industrial Frelard, in the barny space once home to Tray Kitchen. Walking in, it feels a bit like a ’60s-era rec room, especially since the cool-cat jazz coming from the speakers could’ve been the soundtrack for a montage of James Bond tearing up the Malvarrosa. Except for the flaming wood grill on which Rocher does much of his cooking, the rest of the place is airy and cool, with two-tops adrift midroom.
In short, it’s not cozy—when cozy is what is called for by both the Valencian cuisine, all wood smoke and earthy one-pot meals, and the setup, which is a prix-fixe five ($63) or seven ($83) or nine ($103) courses. Tarsan is trying to be a destination restaurant—in a not-very-comfortable room, in a drive-by neighborhood.
And not just any destination restaurant, but one with outsize pretensions. Your first clue is the sign, which doesn’t bother with anything so prosaic as, you know, the restaurant’s name; it’s a drawing of a rabbit. Your second clue is the waitstaff—sweet to a one—who have nevertheless been trained to hawk the restaurant’s Valencia cred at every turn. This effort sometimes looks like upsell, other times empty grandiosity. Asked to describe the ibérico, one waiter blurted, “It’s really expensive ham.”
Indeed, none of this hospitable fleet knew the first thing about the food, which is in fact bursting with intrigue. Our five-courser began with a Calm Cove oyster, topped with apple granita and pocked with sea beans and bloomed basil seed. Here was a prime example of that regional tone deafness, for who in an audience of Seattle connoisseurs want apples in June or fresh oysters topped with so much noise?
But they were terrific—beautifully calibrated, the initial fruitiness of the granita yielding to a nice briny detonation of oyster potency. Score one for the newbie. A fascinating complication of a Valencian country dish, peas and ham, arrived next: a cold pea emulsion in the bottom of the bowl, topped with charry-sweet English peas, ginger granita, and really expensive ham. I kept expecting these flavors to ripen and amend one another, but, disappointingly, they didn’t even mix. The parts were lovely, but the whole never transcended the sum.
This turns out to be a persistent problem at Tarsan i Jane. A vivid plate of butterfish over salt cod puree, with Mediterranean mussels and horseradish aioli and a potent orange escabeche sauce, featured way too many strong voices vying for solos. In lieu of harmony, cacophony.
I could catalog more examples, but you get the drift: Rocher is creative, he’s adept with modernist touches, but composition isn’t his gift. His paella, however, is another matter. The regional culinary focal point of his family’s restaurants, paella is Rocher’s mother food, and the centerpiece of Tarsan’s Sunday brunch—five courses for $55.
Our waiter brought it last, setting the hot shallow pan directly in the center of the table and handing each of us a spoon. Valencians eat paella directly from the pan, scraping its dimpled floor for the caramelized bits, or socarrat, that form the sweet crust. That day’s variant was a tour of the most boring parts of the garden—squash, favas, chard, artichokes—and it still soared, the bomba rice golden and rich, the whole dish smoky and crunchy sweet.
Whenever Rocher interprets old-world Valencia like this, which he’ll do occasionally with a saffron rice dish in the prix-fixe lineup—that’s Rocher at his sure-handed best. So, if the newcomers will suffer advice from a long-timer: Do more of that. Ditch the prix fixe. Unless they already prize the food or the chef, Seattleites have a hard time supporting it, especially for a cuisine they don’t know (see Aragona), in a house they perceive as snooty (see Le Gourmand), in a neighborhood with no scene (see Book Bindery, double take Hommage).
But first, since Seattleites really won’t support a place they can’t find: words for that sign, people.