By Christine Graf
Tatu (pronounced tattoo), a Yucatecan Mexican restaurant, will be opening soon at 17 Maple Ave. in Saratoga Springs.
Owners Kareem NeJame and Jennyfur Spaulding have leased the second-floor space from Sinclair Saratoga owner Hilary Morrison. Morrison has operated Sinclair Saratoga, a craft beer pub and game room, on the first floor of the building since 2017.
The building has housed a few businesses, but is well known as the former Metro nightclub.
“Three years ago, we put together this concept for Tatu,” said NeJame. “Our original intent was to open in New York City, but we decided to go somewhere for a change of scenery. Saratoga was a natural choice for us. We love the area and love the people so much that it just made sense.”
The couple, both natives of the Syracuse area, moved to Saratoga less than two years ago with the intent of opening Tatu. Since that time, NeJame has been working as the manager at Sperry’s, a restaurant a short distance away on Caroline Street in Saratoga Springs. Spaulding, an artist, worked at Harvest and Hearth before leaving that job to oversee the renovations of the existing space.
Because their location was formerly occupied by other restaurants, including Javier’s, it was already equipped with full commercial kitchen as well as a bar.
“The great thing about this space is that it had already been a restaurant,” said NeJame. “We didn’t have to start from the ground up and build a new restaurant.”
Although they made upgrades to the bar, reconfigured the kitchen, and brought in some new kitchen equipment, the majority of the approximately $100,000 they invested in the restaurant was spent on changing its aesthetic.
“All of the furniture and fixtures were hand chosen,” said NeJame. “Our décor is vintage tattoo parlor. It is floor-to-ceiling original art—a lot of it by Jennyfur.”
Tatu is an abbreviation of the word tatuaje, which translates to tattoo in Spanish. The name is also reflective of Tatu’s Mayan-influenced menu.
“The Mayan culture was among the first in the world to start inking their skin to record stories and tell their stories,” said NeJame.
Tatu also features the artwork of local tattoo artists, as well as that of Rob Hotte, NeJame’s and Spaulding’s personal tattoo artist from New York City. Hotte has worked closely with Spaulding to design the restaurant’s unique decor.
“What people don’t realize is that people doing tattoos are really brilliant artists who have chosen to go into a different medium,” said NeJame.
Another aspect of Tatu is its tequila and mezcal library. The glass-enclosed room resembles a storefront and was used by previous owners as a wine room. In addition to being used to house an extensive selection of tequila and mezcal, the library will be used for tastings and private events.
“If there is a tequila or mezcal that exists and is sold in the U.S., we will have at least a bottle of it,” said NeJame. Tatu will also serve wine, beer and other spirits.
The menu will feature food from the Yucatan Peninsula region of Mexico, home to the ancient Mayan civilization. The food that developed in the region has its own style, different from traditional Mexican fare. It was heavily influenced by the Mayan, Caribbean, Spanish, African and Middle Eastern cultures.
“It’s not the typical Mexican that you find in most Mexican restaurants in the U.S. This is in no way a put down—it’s just a different style of Mexican,” said NeJame. “We aren’t going to have quesadillas and burritos and things like that. We have some really great tacos, but we also have some Yucatecan dishes that are rooted in not just Lebanese and Middle Eastern cuisine but in Mayan cuisine.
“Things like the different regional tacos that don’t really even really resemble what we call tacos—things like salbutes and panuchos and items like a black turkey stew which is a really well known dish in the Yucatan.”
NeJame described the food as not overly spicy. “Every dish is ready to eat as it comes out, but sauces can be added,” he said. “There will be house-made sauces on each table—sweet, smoky, or spicy.”
All tortillas will be fresh, handmade, and baked to order.
“They don’t come frozen in a package from a food distributor. They are made fresh all day every day,” said NeJame. “If you’ve never had a taco on a fresh-made tortilla, you just don’t know what you are missing.”
NeJame and Spaulding are avid travelers, and it was while visiting Mexico that they discovered their love for Yucatecan cuisine. NeJame, the son of Lebanese parents, said many Yucatecan dishes are rooted in Lebanese cuisine.
NeJame, a graduate of Villanova University and the French Culinary Institute, will serve as executive chef. He has worked extensively as a chef and has also managed many restaurants.
Spaulding also has restaurant experience and will oversee front-of-the-house operations. The dining room seats 60 people, and an elevated outdoor patio that faces Maple Avenue can accommodate an additional 30.
They hope to have their doors open by May 1. Tatu will employ approximately 20 employees and as many as 30 or 40 during the summer. In addition to serving dinner every day, they will serve brunch on Saturdays and Sundays.
By Christine Graf