Thursday, December 9, 1999
Part of the charm of dining in Carmel is the small, out-of-the-way places whose discovery brings a sense of adventure. Such is the case with Tommy's Wok, opened this October and tucked inside a narrow corridor between Raffaelo's and Anton and Michel's. Already a neighborhood known for some stellar dining opportunities, Tommy's adds a new flavor to this street that knows how to eat.
In the wake of two other successful restaurant ventures in Sausalito and Oakhurst, Tommy Mao and sisters, Van and Joanne were making it look easy on a recent visit. A profusion of steaming plates were leaving the spanking, bright new kitchen to seamlessly arrive at tables that were steadily filling up for lunch. After a six-month remodel, the new interior with its glossy wood floors and clean, spare decor bears little resemblance to the deli that formerly occupied the space, with a menu that sports an attitude to match. Tommy's concept of Szechuan, Hunan and Mandarin cuisine models itself on a new wave of Chinese cooking that emphasizes fresh, natural, flavors and leaves dubious products like MSG and Egg Shade #5 in the past, where they belong.
"There's no artificial color in the pancakes that come with our mu shu," Joanne attests, referring to the pork, chicken and vegetable varieties. "We use spinach for the green ones, carrots for the yellow and beets for the red. And everything on the menu is homemade." Tasting is believing, as the cashew prawns featured on the lunch menu confirms. Loaded with large prawns that are sauteed with precision-cut chunks of zucchini, small diced celery, water chestnuts and green onions, it was perfectly complemented by a clean, flavorful brown sauce, and accompanied by both jasmine fried rice and soft noodles. With a cup of zesty hot and sour soup, this is a lunch that's more than ample for appetites with gusto and an incredible bargain at $7.88.
There's plenty more to explore on this large menu--the tea-smoked duck is marinated in green tea leaves for two days before steaming, (it's the tea that's smoked, rather than the bird), and is served with homemade steamed buns, as is the roast duck. Three lamb dishes vie for favor--four season, Hunan style and Mongolian. More than half a dozen fried rice selections are offered (chicken, barbecue pork, Tommy's specialty shrimp, chicken and barbecue pork), several styles of noodle dishes, as well as chicken, beef, pork and vegetarian offerings. The zinger on the menu is the flaming pu pu platter, a Hawaiian-inspired appetizer for two comprised of barbequed spare ribs, egg rolls, paper wrapped chicken, beef teriyaki, prawns and crab puffs are piled high on a platter around a miniature grill.
This is a kitchen that literally cranks out the dough--and it's all done by hand. Order the potstickers, and you'll immediately understand the difference between the ubiquitous frozen variety and the real ones, like these. Filled with deliciously seasoned ground pork, shrimp and cabbage filling that's tucked inside laboriously hand-rolled pasta (as opposed to a ready-made wonton wrapper) before blanching and pan-frying, they're served with a zippy hot chile sauce. And the vegetarian mushroom variety is just as tasty.
Dim sum lovers will have lots of fun with the lunch menu. Don't miss out on the pork dumplings, wrapped in delicate, thinly rolled dough and brought to the table in a small, covered steamer. Tea is the drink of choice, though a couple of good local wines are available. Unique desserts, like the sesame seed puff and egg custard tart, are good reasons to save room.