Like any wheaten terrier might tell you, there's nothing like a few good whacks on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper to help you refocus your objectives. And nothing will goad a critic into brandishing a tabloid like a restaurant that instantly draws a crowd -- it means, after all, that it's packed with people who couldn't care less about whether their new favorite boîte has been anointed by reviewers. Most seasoned and savvy restaurateurs (especially those who have spawned crowd-pleasers in the past) try to ward off a blow from the critics by installing deferential front desks, fact-drilled servers who've been subjected to rigorous de-preening, and menus too time-tested to take to task. Which is why it was so bewildering, considering the good records of owners (Hui Lee, Jean-Marc Houmard, and Michael Callahan, of Indochine and Bond Street) and chef (Jonathan Eismann, of China Grill and Pacific Time in South Beach), how blatantly Thom was asking for a beating. It was like a boxer leading with a glass jaw. The self-proclaimed goddess at Thom's front desk treated walk-ins as if they were rag-covered peasants trespassing at Versailles. Tables of four expanded without restriction into obstacle courses seating eight. Waiters (who, in their defense, seemed more green than rude) explained Eismann's ambitiously Asian-inspired fare by reading the ingredients exactly as listed on the menu. Sure, each of Thom's four hard-surfaced but hardly hard-edged dining spaces are distinctly handsome, and several of Eismann's dishes occasionally fulfilled aspirations. But these merits were outdistanced by managerial laxity on both sides of the kitchen door. And so the first wave of reviewers went smack!
But dust of all kinds has settled in SoHo over the past few weeks. Whether it's due to the bad press or the change in the city's emotional tone since September 11 is hard to say, but recently Thom's front desk has been manned by nothing but soft smiles and accommodating tones. Its crowd behaves with less self-possession, though happily it's just as handsome. Servers still lack grounding, but at least they've raised their level of awareness so that they're almost always facing in your direction. What they lack in experience they make up for in eagerness. They will even offer to change the CD if you have trouble equating rap with eight o'clock dinner music. With the tumult scaled back so that the atmosphere is now comparable to its cultivated, untheatrical interiors, Thom may have become the only downtown hotel restaurant to achieve a degree of intimacy.
Evidently, the chef has also had a few heart-to-hearts with his kitchen. When Eismann first opened Pacific Time in 1993, Pan-Asian cooking was still pretty much an uncharted territory along Florida's Gold Coast. Not that he didn't bring refreshing innovation and skill to a city dominated by arroz con pollo, ropa vieja, and wet pasta, but Pacific Time often drifted like a 54-foot sailboat on a breezeless Biscayne Bay.
Eight years later, with imitation the sincerest form of enterprise, Eismann's moved to New York, where the success of places like Vong, Nobu, and AZ has turned fusion more normal than novel. His cuisine, with its signature subtle herbs and fiery spices, requires precision and balance if it's going to wrest attention away from roomfuls of label-clad lovelies.
By toning down sweetness, bolstering the presence in his sauces, and jettisoning some of the savaged dishes from Thom's original menu, Eismann is now rightfully snaring the spotlight more often. But he needs to command it. Soups are still too bizarrely medicinal for what he's going after to be understood. On the other hand, fine, delicate Maine bouchot mussels, romanced by lime leaves and anise, now make you take note of their presence one by one. Shrimp curry fired by fermented chili and pumpkin and a brunoise of stewed vegetables is delicious. The porcini and miso broth now has enough heft to match the formidable sweet-potato purée in the dumplings. Celery-root tatin is a solid foil for foie gras sautéed with apples and port. Reducing the ponzu and sesame makes the sardines taste less like herring from Russ & Daughters. There are, however, too many flavors applied to a scant four oysters. (My advice? They should drop one, preferably the lime.)
Entrées vary more radically. Luscious pan-broiled beef shares the plate with a great date of Cabernet-braised short ribs. Hard-shell lobster is seductively aromatic, accompanied by taro, edamame, and Riesling. Delicate skate in a grainy mustard sauce is bolstered by a forceful bed of savoy cabbage and water chestnuts. Slightly sweet black cod finds itself oddly compatible with smoked sable and a crab-ginger nage. But then there are the problems. The gooey sake-cucumber nage on the wild striped bass could be test-marketed as Seafood Cracker Jacks. The acrid chewing-gum-ish sauce that sacks an otherwise succulent rack of Colorado lamb is dominated by (you guessed it) spearmint. The dessert menu is still not tempting enough to lead weight watchers astray. The plum cake with almond anglaise and the green-apple tart (screaming for ice cream) with a maple-sugar glaze are the only two where plates come clean.
But this doesn't mean that Thom can't evolve into one of those crowd-pleasers for the ages. Indochine is how old? Sixteen years. Just think of that in dog years! And how popular? Despite reviews, restaurants are never static. They are perpetual works in progress, destined to change whether by thwacked noses or smooth stroking. Thom can't help but change. And if you can teach an old dog new tricks -- and you can -- imagine what a new dog can learn.
Thom, 60 Thompson Street (212-219-2000). Dinner, nightly, 6 p.m. to midnight. Appetizers, $8 to $19; entrées, $18 to $29. All major credit cards.