Catch the Wave

At the rate they're going, the partners in the Larimer Group have only to open a Sephardic-Ethiopian restaurant and they'll have the culinary bases pretty much covered. They've already done Italian at Josephina's, upscale Mexican at Mexicali Cafe, American pub grub and microbrews at Champion Brewing Co. and Southwestern-meets-the-rest-of-the-world at Cadillac Ranch. Their latest restaurant--and the only one not nestled in the consumer-cushioned comfort of Larimer Square--is Tommy Tsunami's Pacific Diner, a Pan-Asian funhouse. This place had the potential to become an obnoxious concept eatery (for heaven's sake, it has a mascot who's a surfer dud--er, dude--and the name translates to the unfortunate "Tommy Tidal Wave's"), but it manages to keep its head above those dangerous waters by serving commendable food in a hip, energetic atmosphere.

From the second we walked in the door (located just a block from Larimer Square, on Market Street), Tommy Tsunami's flooded our senses. The contrasting colors, the jazzy neon, the catchy curves and lines of the furniture and the collections of funky art and Asian-inspired or surf-related knickknacks combine for a unique and appealing setting; the clientele looked just as stylish as the interior. I'd lose the electronic stock-market tote board, though: The novelty wears off after about ten minutes, and it's like a television that stays on at a party--no one really wants to watch it, but the eyes are defenseless against its hypnotic pull. If Tommy's must keep the board, though, why not run some useful information about the menu across it? My dining experiences there would have been much more enjoyable if the servers had displayed signs of intelligence higher than that of the stereotypical surfer. (Larimer Group restaurants are notorious for having attractive staffers who enhance the surroundings but show little understanding of what they're serving.)

If ever there was a menu that required at least a little know-ledge about a lot of ingredients, this is it. Tommy's innovative combinations reflect the ever-increasing availability of South Pacific foods and the ever-widening understanding that Asian cooking methods and philosophies are healthy and, perhaps more important, extremely marketable right now. And for the most part these combinations work, although a few seem a bit contrived--like the Tsunami Caesar with New Mexico chile-crusted fried oysters ($8.50) we ordered for lunch. The Caesar itself was wonderful, with a zippy, wasabi-sparked dressing and cute little rice crackers serving as sweet croutons. The four huge oysters were even better, trapped in a fiery, crunchy coating. But it would have worked just as well to eat the two separately: first a salad, then a plate of oysters. Still, my dining companion that day recently confessed to a "craving for Tsunami's Caesar."

Our other lunch entree was less addictive but more sensible, a "wrap" of snapper in a hoisin-thick barbecue sauce ($6.95). Basically an Asian-style burrito, the wrap contained a fillet's worth of moist fish and a paddy's worth of rice, as well as some mushy vegetables. The flour tortilla couldn't hold in so much wetness and quickly fell apart, making the whole deal more of an "unwrap." But the flavors were good together, and they were set off nicely by a punchy salad of diced cucumber and grated carrot. We accessorized our lunch with a succession of sushi--varying in price from $3.50 to $7.95--all well-carved from fine specimens of tuna, yellowtail and salmon; we also enjoyed a slightly spicy California roll.

We topped off our meal with a slice of excellent chocolate banana cream pie ($5), which was bottomed by an unusual macadamia crust and thankfully not as sweet as a more typical version, and the fresh pineapple creme brulee ($5), whose ginger-flavored sugar topping was a nice twist. When we'd asked about the creme brulee, our waiter had told us he hadn't tried it yet, then added, "I hear it's very good"--the same thing he had said about nearly everything we ordered. Fortunately, he'd heard right.

The service at dinner was more problematic, especially since we had quite a few questions that never really got answered. (One of the Ten Commandments of Servitude should be "Thou shalt not answer questions with 'I don't know' unless thou followest up with 'I'll find out for you.'") For instance, we were curious about the glass container of seasonings we'd found on our table, a spicy mixture of pepper and who knows what else. We never did find out, because the waitress looked at it as though she'd never seen it before and said, "Gee, I'm not sure. It looks like some kind of seasoning." End of story. Our other questions met with similarly lame responses. Only one netted an answer: After we asked the waitress about the "typhoon lace" mentioned in the menu's description of the crab cakes, she came back from the kitchen and announced in a disparaging tone that it was "some kind of fried noodles." If she couldn't get excited about the crab-cake appetizer, then we weren't about to, either. Instead we went with the Peking pot stickers ($7.50)--a smashing merger of salmon, spinach and jicama in a sweet-and-sour, orange-juice-spiked soy sauce--and a round of sushi. The soft-shell crab roll ($5.95) was impressive, the tuna collar ($7.95) disastrous. The collar is usually the most flavorful and succulent part of the fish, but this one was dry and overdone in some parts and completely raw in others. When we pointed out the problem to the waitress, she uttered a helpful "Eeew, that's awful. I've never had anyone order that before. Well, now I know not to recommend it to anyone."

She should have known to recommend against ordering the house salad ($2.50), since it was the same mess of cucumbers, carrots and jicama that had accompanied the collar. But the over-saladed person in our party had another reason to celebrate: the vegetable hot noodle bowl ($6.50), an ample soup of crisp/tender broccoli, carrots, red peppers, mushrooms and cabbage with udon noodles in a complex broth. Most of the rest of our entrees were equally effective fusions of worldly components, all featuring spectacular presentations. The teriyaki salmon ($14.95) was a flawless fillet brushed with a sauce so rich it was almost a glaze; the fish came with a smattering of stir-fried vegetables and a heaping portion of herb-studded steamed rice. More rice cushioned the macadamia-crusted sea bass ($16.95), another superb piece of fish, this one coated in crushed macadamia nuts pressed together into a crisp shell that held in all of the fish's juices. One prick with a fork released those juices into a sublime sauce of passion fruit, chardonnay and fresh basil; the sweetness of the wine cut the tangy-sweet sharpness of the fruit, and the basil's anise flavor further balanced the brew.

The only misfire was the Peipu BBQ tuna ($16.95), yet another good piece of fish covered with a lackluster barbecue sauce and accompanied by bland garnishes, including a pineapple-and-tomatillo relish that tasted as though it had been sitting around for too long (the flavors had melded to the point of disappearing altogether) and Israeli couscous that had no discernible seasonings. This kind of couscous has a very large grain; without spices, it's like eating plain pasta. The tuna, like several of the other entrees, also came with what are billed as "lotus taro root chips," but the menu is clearly missing an "and"--taro roots are tubers, while lotus roots come from water lilies. Although the plate held two different colors of thinly sliced, deep-fried chips, it was still confusing. Usually lotus chips have gaping holes where the seeds were removed, which makes for a dramatic presentation--and more fun eating. These were smooth, indicating that the root had probably been shaved lengthwise. Or that it was something other than a lotus altogether.

We encountered another mystery when we ordered another piece of the chocolate banana cream pie that had been so good at lunch. This time when I stabbed a spoon into the chocolate crust, it hit an immovable object, and big chunks of dessert flew across the table. "We're going to kill each other trying to eat this," I said. "Oh, wow, you're right," the waitress replied, helpful as ever. (When I called later to ask what had gone wrong with the dessert, a manager couldn't figure it out, either. "Strange," he said, "it isn't usually like that." No kidding.) We had better luck with the Almond Joy ice cream pyramid ($5), an impressively large mound of delicious ice cream awash in chocolate sauce and sitting on a pile of crunchy rice noodles. This odd but satisfying pairing served as a fine example of how good fusion cuisine can be when it's done with a sense of fun but also some knowledge of what works.

And in a sea of new restaurants, that's what will keep Tommy Tsunami's afloat.


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