Saturday, July 7, 2012
Gambit review on Tomas Bistro
It seems restaurateur Tommy Andrade is out to turn one block of Tchoupitoulas Street into his own upscale food court. First he opened Tommy's Cuisine in 2003. He later expanded with Tommy's Wine Bar just next door. And last fall he added Tomas Bistro directly across the street, which replaced his short-lived Mexican concept Tomasito's there. Should the need arise, it would be easy to ferry provisions between Tommy's and Tomas, but the ways each kitchen prepares its staples of the Creole kitchen are quite different. Tommy's has established itself as a destination for Creole-Italian cuisine, and Tomas is pursuing a style of French-Creole cooking that emphasizes the French. It's an old-school — and maybe even old-fashioned — approach, and one that stands in contrast to all the trends now rolling across the Warehouse District's dining scene. Sure, there was a bouffant puff of shredded sweet potato "hay" over an excellent special of thick-cut, grilled swordfish — deeply scored and smoky from the grill — and fried parsley garnished an underseasoned and unremarkable calamari appetizer. But these flourishes aside, Tomas Bistro is about elegant, understated dishes such as roasted duck with a jammy raspberry-fig sauce, its varnished skin encasing a delicate, rare blush within. Grilled chicken is topped with a green peppercorn sauce cut through by cognac, and the bouillabaisse brims with seafood, a saffron aroma and deep French tradition. The kitchen is led by chef Guy Sockrider, who is best known locally for his time at Muriel's Jackson Square. As a reminder of that stint, get the crawfish and goat cheese crepe, a longtime Muriel's specialty transplanted here with its wafer-thin shell and buttery chardonnay sauce. The roasted rack of lamb with creamy Dijon sauce and the venison loin flavored with juniper berries are marquee items, but like the duck, they seem better suited to winter than June's smothering heat. Fortunately, the kitchen's seafood is a strong suit of a lighter variety. Lemon butter and crabmeat on roasted drum, red snapper meuniere and a velvety, almost frothy bearnaise over a soft-shell crab, a recent special, are examples of the kitchen's restraint and reverence for the popular dishes. The dedication to quality is clear, but while dining here it's hard to fight the sense that the party is happening somewhere else. The menu is much more about old favorites than exploration or reinterpretation, those reliable hooks for thrill seekers, and while the large dining room is handsome it doesn't offer much personality. It's also kept dark and waiters must sometimes bring small flashlights to help people read the menus. But Tomas Bistro is a place where a martini is still a martini, the French fundamentals are paramount and a table for four is usually available if you wander in without reservations. You can conclude a meal with bread pudding or cheesecake, but the wine-poached pear seems most appropriate. The color of a beet and the texture of gelato, it's a chapter from an old school that shows no need for revision.