Thomas Chen has honed his knife skills and tended burners at Eleven Madison Park at Commerce, but before he was behind such storied lines, he was crunching numbers as an accountant. Four years into that career, though, he started attending cooking school at night, and he made a full transition into the restaurant world when he graduated. And now, after putting in his time at those New York City temples, he’s stepping out on his own: Last week he debuted Tuome (536 East 5th Street, 646-833-7811), where he’s turning out “ingredient-driven refined food with Asian influence in a casual setting,” he says.
This is a solo venture for Chen, who brought on a designer to give what he calls a “rustic, East Village but still clean and modern look” to the two-room space; tables are refinished and restained, and wool spools from a Philadelphia knitting factory cover one wall. Chen’s also installed Asian knickknacks throughout, but not so many that you could call it kitschy (in fact, you might not notice them at all — they’re subtle).
Chen’s parents owned Chinese food restaurants, and so, he says, he loves cooking with Asian ingredients. It’s hard, however, to get a feel for what to expect foodwise from the menu. Chen explains that the list is composed of four sections — cold small, hot small, big, and sides. Each of those sections is loaded with familiar looking dishes. There’s a watermelon and ricotta salad, for instance, and octopus with fingerlings. A brussels sprouts dish makes the sides section; softshell crab with heirloom tomatoes is listed under hot small. There’s even kale, sort of — it’s tucked into a rice dish at the bottom of the menu.
But for all the trendy ingredients, our dinner, when we bellied up to the bar over the weekend, was full of surprises. Chen touches every table in his restaurant, and when he came to ours, he told us he has a penchant for giving dishes unusual twists. Earlier that day, on the phone, he also mentioned his obsession with balancing flavor and texture.
That plays out across the menu. That watermelon ricotta salad? Coated in crunchy puffed farro, which lightened the summer refresher. The fingerlings aside the octopus turned out to be a foamy espuma, added to the plate tableside; it was overshadowed by the housemade XO, a porky, tart, and spicy condiment added liberally to the tentacle. (If you find the XO as addicting as we did, you’ll also find it in the brussels sprouts, where it plays with crisped up buds of the bitter vegetable and sweet, plump raisins). And the kale, well, it went into a banana leaf pouch with sticky rice and lap cheong, that piquant Chinese sausage.
The star of the entree section, says Chen, has been the ‘Pig Out for Two,’ which nets a duo pork shoulder plus condiments like sambal lime sauce and two bowls of ramen noodles. Solo entrees are hefty, too, especially if you add sides, which you should. Tender short rib comes plated with sweet potato puree, shishito peppers, and enoki mushrooms, but we preferred the accompaniment Chen sent us: sweet corn souped up with curry, creme fraiche, and a zip of lime.
The only dish that we’d have skipped in our entire feast, by the way, was the plate of deviled eggs — deep fried whites hold yolk that, if not underseasoned, can’t hold your attention when you’re sitting next to the rest of the spread.
Dishes pair to domestic beers (including an offering from ACBC, a brewer that got started right around the corner, which the wait staff sells hard) and a list of wines. Anyone with a sweet tooth should know that the kitchen is not currently selling dessert — though a manager tells us it plans to eventually roll something out. Coming eventually, too, are lunch and brunch.
“It’s fun,” says Chen. “There’s definitely a lot of work involved, but I’m able to have a happy and strong staff. I’m keeping a high standard.”
Tuome is open for dinner seven days a week.
See more photos on the next page.