Tom Catherall is one of Atlanta’s most successful chefs, with a knack for opening restaurants in (or near) malls. Twist, Aja, and Prime were all examples, but my favorite was his first, Tom Tom Bistro at Lenox. It enjoyed years of success but closed after a mysterious fire, never to reopen.
After building his Here to Serve empire, including a small chain of innovative tapas restaurants called Noche, he abruptly lost everything in a bitter divorce. His ex-wife won the restaurants as part of her settlement and things went south shortly thereafter. In October of 2015, all of the restaurants abruptly closed, leaving hundreds of workers without jobs. Speculation regarding Catherall’s comeback persisted ever since, until it was announced he would open an updated version of his beloved Tom Tom in Noche’s former Virginia Highlands location.
On a Thursday night shortly after its opening, LC and I stopped by for a casual meal, happy to find seats at the bar immediately as we arrived. I was excited to revisit some of my favorite dishes from Tom Tom’s former location. Although the restaurant’s layout is exactly the same as Noche, the decor was refreshed with white paint and wood. I was disappointed to discover a lack of hooks beneath the bar, but rather a string of garish green lights that did little to flatter our flesh tone, or that of the food.
A specialty cocktail, My Sharona, caught our attention. Made with tequila, watermelon, cilantro, basil, jalapeno, lime juice, and agave, we ordered a couple and sipped them while we watched the chefs through the window into the kitchen. Sitting at the bar has its benefits! Until…
Recreating the tapas theme with the resurrection of Tom Tom, the menu is comprised of mostly small and sharable plates. We ordered four, plus two side dishes. To my horror, all of them came out at once. I noticed Catherall wasn’t there, and I believe his son Ryan, who is the sous chef, was also absent.
Our bartender/server actually said that “tapas are supposed to be served that way”, to which I replied like a snobby food writer that was actually the opposite! Tapas are meant to be brought out one, maybe two, at a time. In Spain, the whole idea of tapas is that guests leisurely nibble on a dish or two, then another comes out, and so on, while they drink glass after glass of red wine.
The first dish in the onslaught was the avocado bruschetta, one oblong slice of toast cut in half and topped with creamy smashed avocados, chili flakes, and crunchy shaved radish. Certainly a tasty start, but a bit pricey at $8 for the smallish serving.
Although I only had taken one bite of the bruschetta, I wasn’t too concerned when the second dish, the wood-grilled octopus arrived. But only a few seconds later the PEI mussels, hot chili seafood, side of corn, and seasonal winter vegetables came out in quick succession. Whoa! What the hell?
It was almost as if they were trying to turn tables quickly, but the place wasn’t packed, and we weren’t at a table. You get the idea. The food runner put the mussels back under the heat lamp while we tried to get to everything else before it got cold. This is when the bartender tried to explain the concept of tapas to me. The octopus, nearly the size of an entree, was expertly grilled and served sliced on top of a heaping bowl of boring white bean ragu.
We enjoyed the Mexican style corn served off the cob, tossed with lime, cotija cheese, and cayenne, but why such an enormous portion? Compare it to the avocado bruschetta at double the price. The mixed winter vegetables were tasty yet nothing special.
However, I was disappointed with Catherall’s signature dish, the hot chili seafood. I mistakenly thought it was sauteed, but it turned out to be fried chunks of fish, calamari, and a few shrimp, drizzled with a sugary sauce. Maybe it worked in the ’80’s but I’m not diggin’ it now. By the time we got the mussels, we were full, but managed to slurp down the shellfish with bits of chorizo in the broth.
My rant didn’t go unnoticed as the manager offered us a complimentary dessert and another round of those awesome cocktails, which we gladly accepted. Dessert was a rich homemade chocolate peanut butter candy bar.
Despite the service missteps, we’ll certainly return. The food was mostly delicious and My Sharona was a winner. I think we’ll try a table on our next visit, away from the garish green light around the bar and the hurried service.
1000 Virginia Avenue 404-815-9155