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Come for the atmosphere, stay to eat

May 21, 2006

By PHILIP McGULLET

BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.Va. - Tari's Premier Cafe, Inn & Gallery playfully operates under the "Wild Women" motif, and sure enough, the first thing that grabs your attention upon entering the trendy restaurant is a giant Jonathan Heath painting of four grinning, elderly female skydivers holding hands in freefall.

Just your typical effort from the Berkeley Springs artist, whose works include jockeys riding a calliope, cats holding hands on a sofa watching not a TV but an aquarium and hippos at a salad bar. If those leave you too breathless, Jan Heath's elegant linocuts on the other side of the dining room can restore your dignity.

Certainly this must be the most artistically interactive dining room in the Tri-State area, with plenty of interesting pieces to comment upon and hold the attention while meals are prepared. (For the musical arts, Thursday nights are jam nights in the adjoining tavern). The art is tastefully displayed in the brick and hardwood-floored dining room, and not at all the hodgepodge mess that's all the rage in chain restaurants.

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Beautiful stained glass creations hang in the ample windows looking out on the main street of this artsy town, ornaments hang from the ceilings and paintings and sculptures occupy the walls. They range from classy to risqu - including metal stick men and women with garden spigots, um, where one might expect to find spigots.

Indeed, even without the food, Tari's would be a worthy and interesting destination.

But while you're there, by all means, eat. The art is eclectic, and Tari's menu is similarly diverse. It has a Southwestern flair - Tari's bottles and sells its own Wild Women salsa - but dabbles freely in regions that include the Deep South, Caribbean and Maryland's Eastern Shore. The Northwest is represented too, with salmon roasted Native American style on a cedar plank.

Even a little Asian fare chopsticks its way onto the menu, including steamed potstickers, mildly seasoned, pork-filled dumplings that are ramped up by a spicy peanut sauce. Then there is the electric-green seaweed salad side, a delicious tender-crisp tangle of flavor that we view as a must-order.

It was helpfully brought to our attention by the staff, of which Tari's is justifiably proud. Servers know the finer points of cuisine, but still retain the folksy, small-town charm that pre-dates Berkeley Springs' evolution into an artistic enclave.

Settling back into more traditional, American offerings, we were pleasantly taken by Tari's twist on basic chicken wings. Tari's reminds us - or maybe we never knew - that wings can be a delicate creation unencumbered by heavy sauces or an armor plating of deep-fried batter.

Tari's have a light, crisp crust and a moist interior, accented by a spicy but light sauce, chunky blue cheese and slices of jalapeo, which on wings are a very good idea.

If this is too much heat, a calmer choice is the silky crab fondue, which is served with bruschetta but also is good when mopped up by Tari's hot, home-baked bread.

Moving on to the main courses, we found Tari's to be at its best when it gets a little, well, wild. The kitchen seemed perhaps a bit bored by something as pedestrian as a steak, in this case a healthy cut of New York strip frosted by a horseradish-bourbon sauce of minimal impact.

Better was the seafood feast, with one of the tastier crab cakes around, scallops, shrimp and crab legs. The scallops, perhaps, could have benefited from a little more wildness, but everything else was a hit. The shrimp had that nice little pop that tells you the chef knows how not to overdo the steamer, and all items were similarly well-prepared.

But things really get interesting when Tari's imagination kicks in full gear. The oysters Napoleon was a dream, Southern-fried in a crackly crust with cheddar-jalapeo grit cake and served with a cream sauce and "flash fried spinach." These juicy morsels were a joy. All kinds of flavors and textures were at work, but none doing so much heavy lifting that you would forget that the oysters were the belle of the ball.

Another complex concoction, Tari's Jambalaya Ya Ya, might be our favorite item on the menu. Served with a hunk of corn bread, the spices are lively, well-layered and authentic in this stew of shrimp, sausage and rice. And at $16, it's difficult to imagine any better bang for the culinary buck.

When dessert time rolls around, Tari's goes the dessert-tray route. If we were the orange-raspberry cake, we would lobby against dessert trays. It was the plainest-looking girl at the prom, sitting as it was amid far more - what's Tari's word - "wild" creations. We chose it because we felt sorry for it.

It was a lucky gamble. One bite and this librarian of a dessert took off its glasses and shook out its hair - rich, fruity flavors in a cake that was dense, but not to the point of heaviness.

Sometimes wildness is at its best when you expect it the least.

Philip McGullet is a pseudo-nym for a Herald-Mail staff member who reviews restaurants anonymously to avoid special treatment.

Tari's Premier Cafe, Inn & Gallery

33 N. Washington St.

Berkeley Springs, W.Va.

Tari's is open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. 1-304-258-1196

www.tariscafe.com

Food: 4 stars (out of 5)

Value: 4 stars

Service: 4 stars

Ambience: 5 stars

By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

The spices in the Jambalaya Ya Ya at Tari's Premier Cafe, Inn & Gallery are lively and authentic.

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