Restaurant Review - Tomas' turn

An ex-Buckhead Diner chef strikes out on his own in Norcross

A luridly lit adult video store comes into view as I reach for my cell phone to ascertain the exact location of Tomas. I seem to be investigating a restaurant on Peachtree Parkway, the metro area's most rapidly developing culinary corridor, at least once a month these days.

"Are you guys near the Love Shack?" I ask into my mobile. I hope I'm not making some good Christian soul wince at the mere mention of the store's name, but the guy on the other end seems unfazed.

"Yes, sir. We're right up the street, across from Walgreen's."

Sure enough, the restaurant's green neon sign glows with the same wattage as the XXX on the side of the Love Shack. It's hard to know what to expect from Tomas based on its exterior. The building is kinda stumpy, with a wide veneer, tinted windows and a low-slung awning.

Inside, it's ... well, it looks like the old-timey dining room of a hotel in the Catskills. The walls are wood-paneled and the booths along the wall are upholstered with gray Naugahyde and separated by etched glass. The carpet is benign burgundy. I wonder if the wait staff might fall in line and give the guests some dirty dancing moves while "I've Had the Time of My Life" pumps from the stereo speakers.

The food also brings "hotel" to mind. Chef/owner Tomas Lee cut his teeth at the Buckhead Diner before striking out on his own, and he's taking his cues from that restaurant's "please one, please all" approach. Patrons are presented with a large white Rosetta Stone of a menu that hits all the major regional trends of the last decade: Southern, Southwestern, Asian, Mediterranean, New American. Your eyes dart every which way and the vast selection forces you to ask yourself, "Hmmm ... Am I in the mood for a hamburger or Hawaiian short ribs with wild rice and Grand Marnier pineapple?"

I've had most of my yummy moments at Tomas with appetizers, and the crab guacamole has been the yummiest. Crab and avocado belong together like chocolate and peanut butter, like tomato and basil, like Simon and Garfunkel. What an astute idea to fold lumps and bits of crab into guac. Unfortunately, the jalapeño flat bread with which it's served is flaccid and innocuous. The kitchen should save itself some time and serve blue corn chips instead. Anyway, I ate the guacamole with a spoon and ordered it every visit. Love. It.

Spring rolls are crunchy and light. It's evident someone's putting care into their construction. I skim right over the word "quesadilla" when I read menus because I'm so sick of them, but a friend ordered it and I'm glad she did. The tortilla was cooked to the right degree of crisp outside and tender chunks of chicken and poblano pepper were suspended in gloriously molten cheese inside. It was served with tequila-spiked sour cream and a fruity dipping sauce that was a cross between salsa and jam. Nice.

Many of the entrees, though, have some aspect that's out of kilter. Scallops, for example, are properly seared and have the salty sweetness that equals freshness. But the creamed spinach underneath should have its picture in the dictionary next to the word "bland." It brings down the whole plate. The lemon-pepper new potato chips don't help much to revive it. Someone who spent time at the Buckhead Diner making their signature warm Maytag potato chips should know how to work some magic with these babies.

Speaking of which, the blue cheese potato gratin that comes with the ribeye steak has no discernable blue cheese taste. It's creamy, but I closed my eyes and scanned my palate for any blue-ish tang. Nada.

It's clear, though, that Chef Lee has earned his chops in the pork department. His 12-ounce slab o' pig served with Jim Beam-sweet potato puree and topped with a simple applesauce is homey and delicious. Gravitate toward these kinds of dishes here.

The patio at Tomas is lovely for lunching. Someone at the restaurant has an amazing green thumb: The potted roses are gorgeous. I sit admiring their vibrant color while munching on a lively tilapia-BLT sandwich special on challah bread. It comes with salad and an unfortunately watery broccoli-cheddar soup. Their cheese steak, a popular lunch choice, is tasty, if a bit salty.

Some of the wait staff come off a bit green. When we asked our server for a wine recommendation, she responded, "Um, I don't really drink wine, so I'm not much good for suggestions. Sorry." That's no excuse for not knowing the list. The folks in charge certainly go out of their way to greet you warmly and thank you as you're leaving. It's clear they're invested in making this place work.

Tomas has been open since May and is still obviously finding its bearings. Lee is an able chef, and my sense is that, as he becomes more comfortable in his roll of chef/owner, the food will become more personal and focused with less hit-or-miss frippery.

One staffer told me that Lee is changing his menu in the next couple weeks to introduce more autumn-appropriate offerings. If they take that crab guacamole off the menu, I'll be sad but I'll understand. And I'll sure be back for it next summer.