Then we walked into the 2-month-old Tomfooleries in the new Zona Rosa shopping district and saw some things that were more horrifying than anything the special-effects crew for Alien vs. Predator could have created. A couple of leathery middle-aged women in tube tops. Waitresses in midriff-baring tops exposing cellulite. And a pretty but brazenly rude Britney Spears look-alike bar waitress. "I'm sorry," she told us when we asked if we could wait at a table in the bar if we ordered some drinks. "Those tables are reserved for customers who actually order from the menu." Her malicious tone left the four of us speechless.
"Let this be a valuable lesson to you, Johnny," Gia whispered to her son. "A pretty face can sometimes be masking a nasty old alien from another planet."
We were, it should be said, strangers in a strange land ourselves. The four of us had driven from midtown out to the northwest corner of Interstate 29 and Barry Road, where Zona Rosa stands all shiny and new (but with electrical glitches that left half of the letters in the illuminated store signs dark). This contrived village of mostly corporate chain shops and restaurants is attractive enough, but it's still a standard-issue mall, with a retail mix clearly skewed to the under-30 shopper.
Depending on which hour you hit the noisy, bustling Tomfooleries, it's either packed with young families and baby boomers or, later, a rowdy younger crowd huddled in the smoky bar, where live bands play five nights a week.
After our unpleasantness with the bitchy Britney Sneers, we decided to continue waiting for a table by sitting outside, watching customers push in and out of the glass entrance doors. "I think this is the only restaurant in Zona Rosa that isn't a national chain operation," Lisa said, noting that we'd passed a Mimi's Café, an Outback Steakhouse, a Rib Crib, and Abuela's Mexican Food Embassy.
This Tomfooleries is only the second location that Barton and Shelly Bloom have opened since they hit pay dirt with their original site on the Plaza 13 years ago. Their formula was simple: Serve seductive food and cocktails in a dimly lighted, intimate environment, and keep the kitchen open long after their rivals had closed for the night.
Barton Bloom lightened his design for this Tomfooleries, calling for a lot more windows and a carpeted second-floor "loft," which I found vastly more comfortable than the cacophonous, concrete-floored ground level. (Bloom calls that décor "warehouse chic.")
Settled at a comfortable table upstairs, we perused the most recent incarnation of the Tomfooleries menu. Most of the restaurant's signature items remained, including the fried dill pickles, the peanut-butter-fried-chicken salad and the rich desserts. Like its Plaza namesake, the prices were decent and the portions big.
We encouraged little Johnny, who typically orders the most expensive entrée on a menu, to try one of the skillet pizzas. I told him that it was the Predator alien's favorite dish. He didn't believe me, but he did like the Tomfooleries version of a Margarita pizza, simply called the Roma Tomato, Basil and Fresh Mozzarella pie, which was rich with bubbly melted mozzarella and an excellent basil pesto. Lisa, a strict vegetarian, adored the crumbly Birkenstock urger, a pan-grilled patty of fresh vegetables topped with marinated red onions. She griped about her side dish, though. "The jicama cole slaw was totally flavorless. "
Gia had high expectations for the crab-stuffed chicken, but it didn't live up to the menu description: "oven-baked chicken breast wrapped in puff pastry dough, stuffed with crab, sautéed spinach, caramelized onions, Monterey Jack and grated Parmesan cheese topped with provolone and braised artichoke cream sauce." I tasted the pastry-wrapped dish (it was neither puffy nor flaky) and found it rich but bland. "It looks like it was made with a bunch of leftovers," Gia said. There was barely a stingy spoonful of the artichoke cream sauce drizzled on the dish, so she asked for more.
The oven-baked Tom's Mom's Meatloaf I ordered was superior to my own mom's meatloaf -- which isn't saying much. It wasn't as good as mine, though the creamy Yukon-gold mashed potatoes were fabulous. The more simple dishes are the better choices at this restaurant, because culinary creativity in the wrong hands can be dangerous. That night's soup du jour -- "creamy pepperoni" -- was a case in point: a thick, orange-colored bisque loaded with paper-thin circles of soggy, greasy pepperoni slices. It was hilariously awful.
A longtime Tomfooleries dessert standard is the Dirty Dump Truck, a mess of vanilla ice cream, crumbled brownies, chocolate sauce and whipped cream served in a plastic toy truck. We ordered the dessert for Johnny because we were going to deny him the gory pleasure of Alien vs. Predator; the truck arrived at the table attached, by a steel cable, to a chilled brick. "Is the brick to keep the ice cream cold?" I asked our server. "No," she said, "it's to keep customers from stealing the truck." We proceeded to steal the dessert from Johnny, eating most of the fattening, gooey stuff ourselves.
A couple of nights later, I returned with Ned and Chester, who were eager to see the much-touted Zona Rosa for themselves. "The architecture is pretty ordinary," Ned said. "But it's nice and clean."
Ned rolled his eyes at some of the more oddball dishes on the menu, such as the spinach salad doused in a Red Bull vinaigrette, and the ramen noodle dish served in a "sweet and spicy pineapple cilantro sauce."
"These are gastronomic mutations that you won't find anywhere else," he said, laughing at a description of a sandwich served on "ciabatta focaccia" bread. Yes, those are two Italian words for two different kinds of flat bread.
And Ned wasn't impressed by our appetizer, the heavily breaded, deep-fried kosher dill pickles (more garlicky than sour). "A ridiculous novelty," he said, though he ate more of them than I did.
Chester didn't mind the pickles and gave high points to his dinner, a moist hunk of grilled salmon doused in a sleek butter sauce and served over a bed of sautéed spinach, mushrooms and those ubiquitous caramelized onions. And to our amazement, the acerbic Ned confessed that he actually loved his Black-Jack Strip, a decent cut of grilled strip steak glazed with an ancho-chili butter. "I'd even come back and get it again," he said.
I had ordered the Thai chicken pizza, hoping it would be as good as the excellent ones served at the California Pizza Kitchen or the Classic Cup. Alas, it wasn't.
We bickered over a dessert selection but stopped in our tracks when our doe-eyed server, Brandy, leaned over the table and suggested having a three-way. "What?" Ned sputtered.
"A Chocolate 3-Way," Brandy said. She explained that it was a combination of chocolate fudge cake, white-chocolate-chip ice cream and chocolate mousse. Chester and Ned insisted on one immediately.
I was less impressed with this ménage à trois than they were. The slab of cake was fudgy but tasted prefab, and the tiny dollop of chocolate mousse seemed to have been prepared from a mix. Only the rich ice cream lived up to the dessert's decadent name.
Still, we were comfortably stuffed as we rolled down the curvy staircase to the first floor, where the bar was crowded with sexy singles smoking and flirting and drinking. "Who said there isn't life in the Northland?" Ned said.
He wasn't fooling.