Can you wear flip-flops to a restaurant that sends out amuse-bouches?
Trick question: Men who aren't shepherds shouldn't even own open-toed shoes.
But it's a riddle raised by Tuome, a new restaurant in the way East Village, where the decor is an undemanding shade of decrepit-chic (mottled brick walls, factory lamps craning their steel necks at interesting angles between exposed beams), but the kitchen announces its more serious intentions from the moment that first little bite comes out from the chef.
"I love fine dining but hate wearing a suit," says Tuome's chef and owner, Thomas Chen. "I wanted to make refined food in a place where it's okay to wear shorts and flip-flops."
Forgetting for a moment the question of proper footwear, let's focus on that refined food: Begin with an elegant chicken liver mousse ($13) sweetened with a touch of local maple syrup, then a little plate of bright, squirty squares of watermelon topped with Rice Krispey-ish toasted farro and ricotta ($12, odd but it works). Try the milky burrata and heirloom tomatoes ($19), because who else is pairing these old friends with an herby lime sauce and a whole tempura-fried soft-shell crab?
Thomas Chen introduces fried soft-shell crab to old friends burrata and heirloom tomatoes
Get the octopus ($18): cooked in sake for three and a half hours and served atop a chunky, house-made XO sauce made of caramelized pork, Chinese sausage, dried shrimp, garlic chives, fish sauce and pine nuts. Get it even though it's finished with an espuma—don't say "foam"!—of potato and brown butter. A siphon-wielding waiter solemnly approaches the table to froth this weightless buttery beigeness onto the octopus—and, for a moment, the delicate detente between Alphabet City cool and fine-dining formality breaks like a poorly aerated espuma.
The siphon routine kills the mood, but I get it. Chen used to work at Jean Georges and Eleven Madison Park. He traded a suit for chef's whites, giving up a dull career in accounting to go to culinary school. This is his first restaurant, long-planned, self-funded and personal in nature. He spent some time growing up in New York's Chinatown. His parents owned Chinese restaurants on Long Island (and originally encouraged him to find another line of work). His cooking is, he says, inspired by stuff he ate in Chinatown as a kid and informed by the techniques and tendencies he picked up working in fine-dining kitchens.
The dude has stuff to say. And, with dishes like the Pig Out (For Two), it's mostly worth listening to: Crisp-skinned pork confit—shoulder meat cured in ginger, thyme and garlic, then cooked for 15 hours in duck fat—is cut into squares like brownies and served with a slick condiment of ginger scallions and a miniature squeeze-bottle of sweet-spicy sambal sauce. It's accompanied by bowls of chewy ramen noodles topped with a peanut-hoisin sauce. The effect is like a Momofuku special re-created by some chefs at Eleven Madison Park who then went out for late-night noodles after service to talk it over.
The whole thing is, like the restaurant itself, technically accomplished while trying to feel loose. And it's damned tasty, though, to my mind, at $54, way overpriced. Tuome's a new restaurant with real talent in the kitchen and it's easy to imagine they'll work out the balance between funk and finery.
Please check your inbox to verify your email address.