Before the Great Smoking Ban of '06, Tom's was the destination for cigar smokers of all sorts (not just the high-end Jon Alan's types). A bluish haze hung in the air perpetually, the smoke and the moody atmosphere combining to create a distinct, if a little seedy, ambience.
The long, dark, L-shape room is barely brightened by the high windows, here in the back corner of a bank building. A huge mural on one wall depicts an old-time cigar girl, box of stogies at the ready, while men imbibe at the bar. Around a corner, a couple of very private booths with a table squeezed in tightly between. Tom's is the perfect backdrop for a '50s detective novel, or a film noir.
From the miniscule kitchen comes a surprising spectrum of food. Although the selection is small, it offers items with Cuban, Mexican, Mediterranean and Thai influences. Lighter fare includes pitas and paninis; pastas and a hearty jambalaya are more filling.
As it's lunchtime, we're sticking to the middle of the menu. Black bean hummus ($6.00) is a great version of more traditional hummus, served with warm pita triangles; there's enough for two of us to share (though I don't really feel like sharing).
Blackened chicken panini ($7.00) is filled with a spicy blackened chicken, and the chipotle mayo is tamed with the coolness of pineapple and salsa. Flavourful, delicious; my only wish is that it wasn't so messy---the filling's running out the end of the pita.
There are several pizzas on the menu, and we're trying the thin crust pesto ($8.00). I really like the thin crust, which is crispy enough to hold the topping without tasting like a cracker. Generously laden with bacon, mushroom, tomato and cheese, this pizza is another winner.
There's only one dessert on the menu at Tom's, and it's a molten chocolate cake ($6.00) of the sort you see everywhere these days. It's a 20-minute wait, our server tells us, but worth it.
Not today, it's not. The cake is burned on the bottom, with nothing left in the middle but dry, gummy, over-baked chocolate. To add insult to injury, the whipped cream on the side tastes old.
We drop back for the weekend brunch, and have to wait for a seat. No wonder, because this is not only good food, it's cheap. For $10.00, we get Havana Roesti, two poached eggs and hollandaise with sliced sausage and the pan-fried, shredded potato roesti. I like my potato pancakes a little more browned, but with the amount of food coming out of this kitchen in such a short time, I'm not complaining. For a buck more, a really great smoked salmon benny makes an appearance. Plenty of smoked salmon, red onions and capers sit on top of a toasted English muffin. All brunch dishes come with a Caesar, a screwdriver or coffee; our Caesars are spicy and the perfect complement to this brunch.
Despite its proximity to Spring Garden, Tom's manages to retain the feel of a neighbourhood bar.
Word-of-mouth is the main form of advertising for this place; to stumble in accidentally is a little like falling down the rabbit hole into an establishment so far removed from the generic watering holes so prevalent these days that it's like another world.You can still smoke at Liz Feltham's food emporium, at foodcritic.ca.