Friday, June 5, 2009

Eat at Tom's

Perhaps not the typical everyman placeholder-type establishment that the originator snowclone "Eat at Joe's" phrase refers to, but Tom's Oyster Bar is certainly worth a second look.

I admit to not giving this place a fair shake. Whenever someone would mention "Tom's," I would immediately think of its Royal Oak location, which would immediately make me think of Royal Oak, which would immediately make me think of the overly-trendy and sub-par restaurants that are all the rage in Royal Oak, which would immediately make me think of how much I dislike Royal Oak, which immediately made me react to the mention of Tom's with a dismissive "Ugh."

However, a few days ago I was out walking towards Hart Plaza and was a bit peckish, so I decided to scope out the territory of this one downtown eatery I have so stubbornly resisted. If you'll recall, I sneered at the Metro Times Best of 2009 Reader's Poll where Tom's was voted as having the best appetizers ("I think this is one of those instances where people didn't know what else to put"). Well, I might talk a big game, but I must admit it piqued my curiosity. So off to Tom's I went.

As soon as I walked in I was an immediate sucker for the hand-written chalkboard signs announcing the wine list and the raw bar items (modeled after classic New England fish market fresh catch chalk board signs), the old-fashioned-y enormous wood bar, the waitstaff dressed in crisp shirts and Boston-ish aprons (I don't know what is so distinctly Boston-ish about them, but when I think of what a Boston-ish waiter’s ensemble would look like, this is what I see…that, or a barbershop quartet), and the classic Detroit-style stamped-tin ceiling, all illuminated by the brilliant early afternoon sunlight. The overall effect is of an airy, seaside 19th century pub, and I was smitten. It felt clean, cozy and inviting. I plopped down and studied the wine board, settling on a Late Harvest Riesling from Leelanau Cellars--a deeply honeyed, crisp Michigan wine, and one that sadly many local sommeliers do not choose to keep in their cellars.

From there, it was on to that famed appetizer list: order off the Raw Board and choose from a wide selection of fresh oysters from such shucker hotspots as Prince Edward Island and Virginia, or perhaps try one of the house-smoked appetizers, including salmon, shrimp, and a variety of pates. Hot appetizers run the gamut from seared scallops to crab cakes (as well as steamed mussels served in a cute miniature tin bucket), and cold appetizers boast peel-and-eat shrimp and a variety of sushi (which I’ve heard is only so-so but that’s what they get for trying to do a Japanese dish in a New England-style fish house). The prices are admittedly a little high—most apps will run around $10.00-$12.00, which is a bit north of the standard $6.00-$8.00 for this type of mid-level casual restaurant. However, the offerings here are a little higher-quality than at the average “Joe” establishment, what with the wide range of fresh oysters flown from all over the country as well as the fish smoked in-house daily and the housemade sausage and pate.

I opted for the Charlevoix Whitefish Sausage, since I’ve found that you really just can’t go wrong ordering whitefish anything (and if you agree with my assessment here and are ever out by way of St. Clair, the whitefish pate at the Chuck Muer restaurant the River Crab, served as a precursor to every meal—or at least it was 8 years ago when I was last there—is absolutely outstanding, and even worth the drive). And it was wonderful, served very simply with crackers, horseradish (or some such god-awful seafood dipping sauce), and a lemon. The waiter was even kind enough to bring me some dinner rolls, since I had a mad carb craving not easily satisfied by the menu items.

The rest of the menu deserves a good perusal as well. Tom’s is always crowded at lunchtime and offer a great selection of salads and sandwiches that appeal to a wide range of tastes (though again, $12.99 for a Po-Boy is approaching criminal, and $13.99 for a spinach salad is downright unreasonable). Tom’s also offers a selection of seafood chowders and bisques which I’ve heard are unanimously meh; what can I say, once you’ve had good chowder it’s hard to go back to the standard stuff. The dinner menu is actually the most reasonably priced of the bunch (in fact, some of the fish actually cost less than that spinach salad), offering a pretty average range of fish, chicken, steak, and pasta. Perch, Sea Bass and the like—nothing quite like the Nairagi you can get at Northern Lakes Seafood Co., but good enough when you're hungry for some seafood. For dessert, you can sample a Detroit classic: a Sander’s hot fudge sundae. Or their renowned Key Lime Pie, made with the same recipe for 20 years and lauded for its southern Florida authenticity.

I applaud the presence of the Michigan wine on the menu, but it appears to be a stand-alone. The rest of the wine list hails mostly from California, though the Avalon and Sterling Cabernets listed by the glass makes me happy. The beer list here is outstanding, however, with an extensive list of bottled beers from all over the world. Most are relatively common, but take into consideration that the places where Asahi, Sapporo, and Kirin are stocked are typically not the same places that keep Pilsner Urquell and Spaten Optimator lying around.

And so it is I’ve come to the conclusion: I’ve been a little too hard on Tom’s. It’s got a great vibe and offers an eclectic mix of food and drink, even if some are hits and others misses. The biggest drawback here are the menu items that can’t justify their own high price points (the spinach salad is served with bacon! No other meat, just bacon!), but barring that Tom’s is a fun casual eatery, with a great location right by the Riverfront and GM's world headquarters, making it a perfect place for locals, travelers, and business types alike to meet.

So, uh…sorry about that, Tom.