Eight of us took over the booth in the back of the cocktail lounge at Tommy's. It was close enough to the stage to enjoy the music and yet far enough away that we could have a conversation. Not that I had much to say. Between sucking down the three varieties of baked oysters we got for an appetizer and listening to pianist Joe LoCascio and saxophonist Warren Sneed, I was too content to talk.
The oyster sampler plate also included oysters Rockefeller made with sautéed fresh spinach, smoked bacon and Parmesan, and oysters Zannelli, a simple baked oyster with a little hot garlic butter and Parmesan. The Bienville oysters were preferred by the cream sauce lovers at the table, while the Zannelli oysters got the vote of the oyster purists. The Rockefellers came in last.
Tommy's on Westheimer (the original is in Clear Lake) is a strange restaurant. There's a large dining room that was nearly empty every time I visited. And there's a cozy cocktail lounge with live music through Saturday nights. If you don't mind eating in the company of cigarette smokers, you can eat in the bar, close to the music.
After a Thanksgiving turkey dinner at home with the family, the tobacco smoke, the clink of ice cubes and the drunken laughter were a refreshing break on Friday. There's nothing like eating in a smoky cocktail lounge to get that Norman Rockwell taste out of your mouth.
After Joe LoCascio and Warren Sneed played their first set as a duo, they came back with a bass player and drummer and did another set as a quartet. Sneed, who is the director of the jazz program at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, is one of the best jazz musicians in Houston. And so is pianist Joe LoCascio. Their music made the evening.
The oysters were excellent, too. The rest of the food was uneven. I ordered a medium-rare strip steak, but the steak I got was gray in the middle. The waiter took it back to the kitchen, and I waited while they cooked me another one. That gave me plenty of time to sample everybody else's dinners.
The best entrée that night was Gulf redfish with crawfish étouffée sauce. The pan-fried fish was moist and extra crispy along the edges. It came to the table naked with a side of several vegetables. Then the waiter finished it off by pouring a gravy boat full of crawfish sauce over the top. It was a smart way to serve the dish -- if the sauce had been applied in the kitchen, the fish would have been soggy by the time it made it to the table.
A mixed grill featured excellent medium-rare slices of beef tenderloin, bland stuffed quail slices and highly seasoned venison sausage. We were drinking an unremarkable St. Jean pinot noir that went well enough with our dinner fare -- except for the sausage. I like venison sausage with lots of jalapeños, too, but it sure tastes better with beer and sauerkraut than with red wine.
Panko salmon was a standout. The fish was crusted with Japanese breadcrumbs and horseradish and presented with a cooling yogurt, cucumber and dill sauce on the side. The char-grilled shrimp, which were seasoned with Tony Chachere's Creole seasoning and grilled on skewers, were simple and perfectly cooked.
The lighter appetites at the table settled for Caesar salads, one topped with boneless, skinless chicken breast and one without. The salads were lackluster bowls of Romaine, tomato and croutons with no discernible anchovy, coddled egg or other authentic Caesar salad ingredients.
When my steak came back, it was cooked correctly. The meat was juicy and fairly flavorful, but nothing special. Like the rest of the steaks at Tommy's, it was Black Angus, which falls in the same category as USDA Choice. There are lots of places where you can find USDA Prime steaks, both wet-aged and dry-aged, in Houston. So you don't go to Tommy's looking for the best steaks in town. You go for the music and the atmosphere.
On my first visit to Tommy's, a dining companion and I sat in the dining room at a table that looked into the lounge. She was talking about steak and creamed spinach in the car all the way down Westheimer. She got a filet mignon, which was cooked medium as she ordered it. The meat wasn't particularly tender, nor was it all juicy. And she was bitterly disappointed to discover Tommy's doesn't serve creamed spinach.
"A steakhouse with no creamed spinach?" she whined when the waiter was out of earshot.
Unlike most steakhouses, which offer à la carte menus of salads, potatoes and other sides, Tommy's serves a baked potato and two vegetables of their choice with their steaks. Or you can skip the potato and get a plate with five vegetables. In three visits I saw the same five every time -- asparagus, grilled squash, a broiled half tomato, a hunk of broccoli and sweet potatoes seasoned with pumpkin pie spices. While some of them are pretty good, this is a lame approach to side dishes.
On that first visit, I ordered the 16-ounce bone-in rib eye steak. What I got was a thin and gristly boneless rib eye.
"Where's the bone?" I asked the waitress when she delivered it.
"The menu says 'boneless rib eye,'" she said. She came back from the kitchen a few minutes later and apologized. "The menu does say bone-in rib eye," she admitted. "But the chef says you got a better deal because you got 16 ounces of meat instead of all that bone." A steak always tastes better when it's cooked on the bone, so I wasn't buying her explanation. The jazz that night wasn't very good, either.
But I gave the restaurant another chance. On my second visit, we sat in the bar and ordered seafood. After all, the name of the place is Tommy's Seafood Steakhouse. So maybe the seafood comes first.
I got Gulf redfish topped with lump crabmeat in butter sauce. The crabmeat lumps were large, but not very strongly flavored. They were probably from Pacific crabs. The big crabs harvested in Texas are sold to crab houses in Maryland for 30 dollars a dozen. As a result, there isn't any jumbo Texas crabmeat available here anymore. Most of our jumbo lump crabmeat comes from the Pacific coast of Mexico, and it isn't as sweet as the local blue crabmeat.
My dining companion got the tuna, which was terrible. The tuna steak was thin and tough -- not the bright-red, sushi-grade tuna she was hoping for. The music that night wasn't all that exciting, either.
I was about to write a none-too-enthusiastic review of both the food and music at Tommy's, but I changed my mind after I talked to Press music critics John Nova Lomax and Olivia Flores Alvarez, who said that if you go on the right night, you can hear the best jazz players in Houston at Tommy's. So I asked them to look at Tommy's calendar (www.tommys.com) and make a recommendation.
According to Alvarez, our jazz expert, "David Caceres is easily the best jazz sax player in Houston, and one of the best in the state. Joe LoCascio, Dennis Dotson and Warren Sneed also have major, internationally known chops." And all of these guys can be found playing at Tommy's on Westheimer on various nights.
Luckily, I gave the place one last try -- hence our sublime post-Thanksgiving jazz and oyster party with LoCascio and Sneed. I look forward to hearing Caceres and the rest sometime soon.
I highly recommend eating in the lounge at Tommy's Seafood Steakhouse on Westheimer any night one of the guys on Olivia's list is playing. Go early; it fills up quickly. And stick with the seafood.