Five pretty, mature women, their immaculate faces framed by emphatically not-gray hair, lazed in a post-dinner stupor in the front room of Tommy's Cuisine. Emptied wine bottles forested their circular table, and through the dim flicker of candlelight each one appeared to contemplate sleep -- the most sensible act following any Creole-Italian meal. But sleep would have to wait; one by one, diners from other points in the jam-packed restaurant stopped by with greetings and general prattle, until finally the five grabbed their furs and stumbled out.
These women weren't especially in demand; they were just locals on the town. At 4 months old, Tommy's is already one of the hottest reservations for New Orleanians hoping to run into friends, and a quick cast of regulars is but one reason for its prematurely polished feel. There's also the heavy, cohesive scent of garlic, wine and cologne that seems to stain the dark wood walls; the deceiving black-and-white photo gallery of diners that appears to pre-date color film; the romantic/chauvinistic impression of an all-male waitstaff; and senior waiters, like Sergio, whose certainty about everything is as reassuring as a smiling airplane pilot, whether he's ultimately correct or not.
Nothing about this place is chance, or new for that matter. Namesake-owner Tommy Andrade was a founding partner at Irene's Cuisine. While Tommy's isn't identical to Irene's (I saw no piano, no Jesus icons), the menu is effectively a carbon copy, and the old-school Italian charm is a mirror image. Even Sergio is an Irene's transplant, and he's still recommending the crisp Chardonnay from Burgundy.
It's startling to see Chicken Rosemarino in another setting, with its mess of roasted garlic, scattering of rosemary needles and emerald wading pool of olive oil. Just like at Irene's, the individually roasted, golden-brown chicken pieces seem to guard the plate like neolithic soldiers. Just like at Irene's, an inconsequential red-sauced pasta comes on the side. And, just like at Irene's, the dish is fantastic.
Irene's veterans will pick up another echo in the linguine with tomato-basil sauce and mammoth soft-shell crab centerpiece; they may or may not recognize its stubby, tough crawfish tails. Here baked Oysters Irene are re-named Oysters Tommy, their inelegant red bell pepper, pancetta and cheese toppings tasting more like Oysters Pizza. Paneed oysters, another near-replica, are more deserving of an owner's name; fat, juicy and pan-fried, they sprawl horizontally in a loose-fitting breadcrumb batter, while grilled shrimp, grapes and spinach validate the dish as a full-fledged appetizer.
The greatest distinction between Tommy's and Irene's is, of course, that Irene DiPietro comes nowhere near Tommy's kitchen. But while her staunchest fans might notice the unnecessary abuse of pepper here or a clumsy dice of vegetables there, Irene's brand of Italian cooking is, without a doubt, now available in the Warehouse District. A bonus: Unlike at Irene's, where a 90-minute wait is standard on weekends, you can breeze into Tommy's with a reservation and finish before your carriage reverts to a pumpkin.
The copycatting doesn't stop at Irene's menu. One of Tommy's three principal chefs worked at Galatoire's for 35 years, long enough to compose the standing Galatoirian specials menu. His Fillet of Fish Maison -- a simple pan-seared drum fish sauced in butter -- could have swum over from the kitchen at 209 Bourbon St. The Lamb Chops Galatoire's taste of butter and grass, and a mighty, yellow blanket of bearnaise sauce brightens the meat with its strident lemon and tarragon. Golden roasted potatoes, brittle as gift wrap outside and cottony inside, accompany both fish and meat.
A "canape," minimalist in every respect, involves lump crabmeat fragrant with New Orleans' aromatic vegetable trinity, domed over buttered toast. Turtle soup was memorable only for its concentration of pepper.
Somehow I managed to dine here exclusively with that peculiar breed of local (some native, some not) for whom old-line Creole and Creole-Italian food is always "too heavy." A person of this breed will feel his blood sludge at the mere thought of Tommy's cream-bound crabmeat gratin browned and bubbled around the edges, and he will plead for any banal sorbet when you suggest the very rich bananas Foster bread pudding seething with nutmeg. (Note: If you order the bittersweet chocolate mousse, which with its marshmallow-like cream tastes like a Milky Way bar, he will act horrified and then lap it up.) Tommy's primary role models are usually too heavy for this breed, too.
People disturbed by the blatant mimicry here must realize that no place could reproduce the specific dining experiences of either Irene's or Galatoire's. When Andrade speaks to customers about his history at Irene's, or about his employees' restaurant pasts, he does so with the appropriate amount of deference. You sense that Tommy's is as much a dedication as it is a rip-off, while all around you the endless, and timeless, local dining dialogue carries on. I suspect that most New Orleanians, especially those for whom butter and cream are as fundamental to eating as knife and fork, won't approach this restaurant replica as a substitute -- rather they'll regard Tommy's as an additional excuse to eat out.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Service with a smile: The all-male waitstaff at TOMMY'S CUISINE is eager to please with a menu inspired by both Irene's Cuisine and Galatoire's.