At Tuome, Thomas Chen Articulates Eloquent Culinary Sentences in Alphabet City
All photos by Bradley Hawks
At Tuome (536 East 5th Street, 646-833-7811) in the center of the East Village's Alphabet City, an appetizer of smoky charred octopus arrives at my table. Curved like an iron boat hook excavated from a shipwreck, the lone tentacle reclines on a shingle of pork pebbles. Before I can do my best James Cameron impersonation, the chef, Thomas Chen, materializes, siphon at the ready, and, faster than you can say "espuma," spews a mound of fingerling potato froth over the plate.
Forgive the chef his foam. It's a touch of genius, a sheen of buttery richness to counter the starter's sharp flavors, in particular the XO sauce, a savory Chinese gravy made from a base of dried scallops, that glazes the pork hash. The same creative spark abounds at Tuome -- so much so that the Voice awarded it "Best New Restaurant" in this week's issue.
Chen's parents owned Chinese restaurants, so his culinary heritage imbues more than just his DNA. But the menu he has developed at Tuome (pronounced toe-me) makes stops all over Asia. Robust Japanese milk bread accompanies velvety chicken liver that's served like mashed potatoes, with a well of local maple syrup embedded into the mousse in place of gravy. Chicken cracklings and sea salt help to further season the spread. In a nod to dim sum, lotus leaf parcels unfurl to reveal a mound of sticky rice that conceals kale and chewy, unctuous Chinese sausage cooked in duck fat. Chen crisps the sausage before steaming for added texture: a classic, improved.
Five-spice yogurt and pumpkin seeds rescue from tedium what might otherwise have been just another beet salad. As you'd expect, the main ingredient has been roasted, but it also appears in raw form, shaved, along with quinoa two ways: steamed and fried crunchy. (In warmer weather, the chef melded grains with fruit, coating watermelon chunks with puffed farro.) The painterly presentation and clever use of techniques serve as a reminder of the time Chen spent in the storied kitchens of Commerce and the progressive temple Eleven Madison Park. Likewise the browned chicken, which finds depth in a salad of charred lettuce and basil. Even a side of corn kernels feels inspired, rendered as a soupy curry dotted with crème fraîche and fragrant with kaffir lime.
The front of the house carries out service with a subdued self-assurance that bridges the gap between Chen's buttoned-up food and the intentionally low-key atmosphere. (The chef aims to offer patrons "ingredient-driven, refined food with Asian influence in a casual setting," as he told the Voice in August.) Wine and beer lean local, and the staff makes it easy to choose a pour from the brief list. Rather than misinterpret "modern Asian" décor into caricature, Tuome's dual dining rooms radiate with a stylish glow from industrial fixtures that highlight a wall of reclaimed wool spools in one room and hung windows that frame exposed brick in the other. On another block, this restaurant might attract a louder crowd, but compared to ramen people-magnet Minca next door, Tuome is peaceful -- and not for lack of diners. Hour-long waits for walk-ins are common during prime time.
Chen rewards that patience with thoughtful compositions. Upon arrival on one visit, our table's bouche was amused by miniature nests of pickled green papaya, tomato, and crisp taro that roared out of their cups with bursts of fish sauce and lime. A small plate of paper-thin spring rolls held gelatinous oxtail and bone marrow; scented with cumin, the brittle shells give way to juicy insides that take on more verve when dipped into verdant cilantro sauce. Heirloom tomatoes similarly brighten soft-shell crab and a torn, milky purse of burrata cheese. Cleave the crab in two and let its briny juices spill out. Think of it as a highbrow rangoon: channeling a Chinese-American cliché, then snapping it into the present moment with vibrant herb-lime sauce.
Tuome opened in August, and the menu remains mostly unchanged. Launching with wobbly, tender short ribs crisped up with shishito peppers and served over sweet-potato purée may have been an unseasonable choice for summer, but with autumn upon us, the earthy combination comforts. Opaque and flaky, skate with charred cauliflower and water spinach veers into amandine territory (and successfully so) thanks to a Marcona foam. Scallops wear a plaid blanket of hearty accoutrements, their sweetness melding with carrots, nutty hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, and a silky foie gras sauce.
Fans of Chinatown's famed hanging lacquered barbecue will find an equally impressive show here. Chen's "Pig Out for Two" portions squares of 15-hour Berkshire pork shoulder confit into a meat mosaic laid across slate. With a well-dressed salad, ginger-scallion sauce, and a squeeze bottle of citrusy house sambal for company, it's something of a signature dish. But come early for the confit, lest the kitchen run out. (A shame, as ordering it is the only way to get your hands on deep bowls of pungent peanut noodles, which permeate the room with extreme legume perfume.)
Desserts could use some work -- in that there should be more of them. The one offered on our forays, a jarred "Summer Sundae," tastes great. Fresh berries and citrus jelly cut through scoops of vanilla ice cream. A Chinese cruller crowns the tart and creamy treat, more crouton than doughnut. Let it soften in the sugary terrarium. Its flavor, like so many of Tuome's dishes, lingers on both palate and mind.
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