That's why customers need to find Thomas Restaurant and liven up the joint. My friends tell me that the rooftop deck can be loud in the evenings, luring the young and the restless up a flight of stairs for Cosmopolitans and calamari. The buttercup-colored dining room on street level, however, isn't particularly packing them in. On both a Saturday and a Tuesday evening, only two or three tables were occupied, even when there was a lot of action upstairs.
"I heard it was really more of a bar than a restaurant," said my friend Lorraine, who lives a few blocks north. I told her that she shouldn't believe everything she hears, especially in the restaurant world. Ditto for another friend who says he won't go into Thomas simply because he loathed the last two restaurants that moved into the space Joe D's on 39th Street and Matadors after the legendary Café Allegro left in 2002. "I refuse to be disappointed again," my friend told me, adding that he hoped the new owners had hired an exorcist to chase out the bad vibes of past tenants.
Unlike the two casual-dining restaurants that preceded it, Thomas has ambition. You have to give credit to the three young entrepreneurs Brian Donatell, Kevin Van Emburgh and chef Grant Linebach for pulling out the stops. They gave the main dining room a clean, appealing makeover. The walls are still exposed brick, but they laid shiny wood floors, tore out the old drop ceiling and hung sophisticated, pretty light fixtures.
Each white linen tablecloth is draped with a sheet of brown butcher paper, while the music is soft and unobtrusive. Café Allegro it ain't, but Thomas isn't going for that former restaurant's mink-and-Mercedes crowd. At Thomas, the prices are reasonable, the portions are healthy and the room has a distinctly soothing vibe, which it hasn't had since Café Allegro's well-trained staff fussed over customers like doting nursemaids.
Instead of fawning waiters, the Thomas owners hired briskly efficient ones. They're the kind of servers who greet customers immediately and have a basic knowledge about the ingredients and the preparation of the dishes on the menu. (They're more knowledgeable, in fact, than one of the three owners who, I later discovered, still has to ask the chef to answer simple culinary questions three months after the restaurant opened.) We had a pretty waitress named Dana, who explained the array of small plates and the 10 entrees.
"We have the best calamari in the world," she boasted to four of us on the first night, ignoring me as I rudely stuck out my tongue I'm now officially and permanently bored by fried squid. That night, the fruit-and-cheese platter sounded like too much, and the grilled asparagus too little. We decided to share a plate of scallops, which conveniently came four to an order. I doled out one of the pillowy mollusks for each of us, spooning a bit of herbed butter sauce over them.
"They're very nice," said Marilyn, who loved the fact that the sauce had little bits of ham and peppers and wasn't too garlicky perfect for dipping warm baguette slices, which she devoured. Meanwhile, we watched group after group of pretty young blondes go up and down the stairs to the rooftop deck.
It occurred to me that I should venture up there myself and see what was going down on the upper floor, but just then my dinner arrived.
I'm not the type of carnivore to order many dishes that sound as healthy as grilled vegetables splashed with balsamic vinegar and served with a risotto du jour, but I liked Dana's description of Linebach's lemon-basil risotto and, God knows, I could stand to eat a few more vegetables. The risotto, which is delicately flavored with basil and a clean citrus tang, is vegan-friendly. (Linebach uses vegetable stock and olive oil instead of meat stock and butter.) It's surrounded by a delicious combination of grilled red onions, carrots, mushrooms and green beans.
I gave Marilyn a scoop of my risotto and took some of her lovely, fork-tender braised short ribs, which Linebach pan-sears with garlic, beef stock and red wine, then slow cooks for six or seven hours. Across the table, Bob sang praises for his beautifully grilled, juicy 12-ounce ribeye (at $20, it's one of the most expensive dishes on the menu), sided with mashed potatoes. And we all marveled at Jackie's buttermilk cider chicken, which looked nearly as luscious as it tasted.
Linebach marinates those chicken breasts for 24 hours in fresh buttermilk (as his Aunt Leila taught him) and cooks it in a pan with a reduction of apple cider, heavy cream and chicken stock, then serves it covered with tart, tissue-thin apple slices. It's one of the most succulent chicken dishes I've ever tasted, and I wish there were more offerings like it on the menu.
We shared a fudgy slab of rich chocolate layer cake, which was sort of a disappointment after the creative and exciting entrees. (All of the desserts at Thomas are made at a corporate bakery.)
My next visit brought more disappointments. I took along Mark and Camille, who live within walking distance of Thomas and were eager to try the new place, although they had their own preconceptions. "It's expensive, isn't it?" Mark asked.
Not really, I tried to explain, although those small plates can add up after a while. We were unimpressed with the goat cheese two quarter-sized discs in a pond of hearty marinara, sided by slivers of toasted baguette. Much better was Linebach's clever spin on shrimp cocktail: spicy grilled jumbo shrimp on wooden skewers poking out of a martini glass filled with chilled guacamole.
It was a hot night, so Camille thought she would eat light by nibbling on two small plates (which aren't so small) instead of a full entrée. I decided to do the same and share with her, while Mark ordered that buttermilk cider chicken which I soon coveted.
Our bruschetta was heaped with a thick blanket of chopped hot house tomatoes (which I find flavorless). That wasn't as disconcerting as the mess that the menu had called a fresh mozzarella salad. What arrived did involve slices of creamy soft mozzarella, perched on a mound of soggy, overdressed spinach and sprinkled with sliced cherry tomatoes. It was too ridiculous to eat.
We were much happier with a plate of sumptuous beef tips, seared in garlic and olive oil, on a bed of warm burgundy mushrooms. That small plate could easily have passed as an entrée.
When our waiter rattled off the night's dessert list, Camille was intrigued by a pastry described as raspberry red velvet cake. "I've never had red velvet cake made with raspberry," she said. She still hasn't. The cake, layered with thick cream cheese frosting, was a traditional light cocoa-flavored red velvet cake. There was no hint of raspberry, although it was garnished with a few.
"Well, I think that's what they told us it was when we ordered the cake," a puzzled Kevin Van Emburgh said later. "Raspberry red velvet cake."
And it's true, the folks at the corporate bakery might have said that. But you can't believe everything you hear.