For the longest time I thought of it as Rick's Brother's Place. Rick, of course, is Rick Dominguez, longtime owner of the Pepper Tree who sold the restaurant and retired recently for health reasons. His brother opened Tommy D's in May, and while it has a casual, relaxed feel and a simple bistro menu, it has the same concern for details that have made the Pepper Tree memorable. It also offers the same pepper steak as its star entree -- more on that later.
Long the site of biker bars whose names seemed to change with the seasons, this uninspired building still wears a bright beer banner on the outer wall near the patio. Ignore it and head on in. You'll find a comfortable bar area separated from the main dining area by a wall of wood and glass; chairs that will make you want to linger; tasteful cool colors on the walls; linen napkins on the solid tables. Muted televisions display classic films while jazz plays just loud enough to complement conversation.
Menu items are the simple, basic fare you'd find at many casual dining restaurants. The twist here is the impeccable preparation, the careful presentation and the use of good fresh ingredients. The difference between Tommy D's and the rest is obvious.
Lots of restaurants serve calamari, for example -- usually breaded, fried and accompanied by a yawningly dull marinara dipping sauce. Not at Tommy D's. The calamari here is sauted in garlic butter with artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomatoes, cooked long enough in an herb and wine-scented broth to become meltingly tender. The broth was bread-sopping good, and weren't we lucky to have crusty dinner rolls from Wimberger's Bakery (one of our town's best) to soak it up?
The crab cakes came with a black bean and roasted corn salsa zinged up with a little chipotle pepper. A light lemony caper sauce jazzes the soft-shell crabs; mussels are steamed in shallots, garlic and wine. And these are just the appetizers.
The menu is a work in progress according to Craig Dominguez, Tommy D's son and go-to guy for everything from answering the phone to menu planning to brainstorming the nifty killer cocktails they serve in the coolest martini glasses around: Glasses sit not on stems but on heavy colored glass balls (harder to tip over, which, as any martini drinker can attest, is always a consideration). I recommend the drink with four kinds of rum and a suggestion of pineapple juice.
Specials that garner strong positive feedback may find themselves on the regular menu; other items may switch off. One dish sure to stay is the Pepper Steak, the signature dish at the Pepper Tree that Tommy D. co-owned until 1989. There is no tableside preparation here; the magic is worked back in the kitchen, but the result is the same tender fillet topped with a piquant mango chutney. At $19.95, it's the most expensive entree, and worth every nickel.
Chicken, fish and pasta round out the entrees. One innocuous-sounding grilled salmon that we tried was made memorable by a delectable dill and wine cream sauce. The spinach and artichoke ravioli was a sublime bowl of pasta, pretty in its presentation with alternating green and white raviolis adrift in a garlicky cheese sauce, and garnished with two pieces of garlic bread (grilled, not microwaved, my latest bugaboo) and thin ribbons of tricolored bell pepper. Almost too pretty to eat.
Chicken lovers will enjoy the sauted chicken with penne pasta and marinara sauce, or the charbroiled chicken breast with mango salsa. All entrees come with a small, delightful fresh salad. With the exception of the pepper steak, entree prices range from $12 to $18.95.
We hadn't been particularly keen on dessert until our server started talking and seduced us with details of the ice-cream crepes. It exceeded his description and our expectations. That we didn't fight among ourselves for the last bite was only because the serving was so generous that we were all sated.
Tommy D's opens at 11 a.m. and serves straight through til 9 or 10 p.m. It's a great spot for a luncheon respite, offering sandwiches, burgers and salads. The Chicken Caesar was good, the Romaine lightly dressed and the chicken tender and tasty. The Bleu Burger features a generous topping of crumbled Gorgonzola on a large juicy burger. The buns are toasted and the pile of thick-cut, skins-on fries enormous. Reubens, clubs and a steak sandwich are also available. Despite the traffic on 21st Street, lunch in the shade of the patio is awfully pleasant. Look up at the mountains and think rain.
Service on all our visits was exactly as it should be: friendly, attentive, unobtrusive. A solid menu, dishes well prepared, a central location with lots of parking, Tommy D's could be your new neighborhood bistro.