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Tommy Toy's and Two Very Good Wines

Located just across the street from San Francisco’s Transamerica Building, Tommy Toy’s Cuisine Chinoise has been the setting for power lunches and a top choice for special occasions among the well-heeled since 1985. More than twenty years later, its elegant setting and service coupled with a classy, French-inspired touch to the food and its presentation still set this restaurant apart. Despite being long-time Bay Area residents we’d never been to Tommy Toy’s, so we were quick to say “yes” when friends asked us to meet them there for dinner.


We noticed a difference between Tommy Toy’s and every other Chinese restaurant we’ve been to in the U.S. before even leaving our home. We were wearing a suit jacket. While the dress code is “smart casual,” people usually step it up a bit from that. Its valet parking is less unique but is nonetheless very welcome in San Francisco where finding a parking spot can sometimes take nearly as long as the meal itself. The regal lobby decor foreshadows the dining experience to come.

After walking through the lobby, you’re greeted politely by a hostess wearing a formal Chinese gown and then led to your table by the host who, like all the servers, is in black tie. The dining room is opulent. Its walls are tastefully covered with antique Chinese art and fans, along with mirrors to make the space feel larger. Vases with very nice floral arrangements are interspersed among the white linen-clad tables. Dark stone and silk drapes add to the atmosphere designed to recall that of a 19th century Chinese empress’ sitting room.

While the regular menu includes common dishes such as pot stickers, spring rolls and Mongolian lamb, it also features items that offer a high-end fusion of Chinese and French cuisines like seared Sonoma goose foie gras with fresh pear and watercress in sweet pickled ginger sauce. The menu does not change daily as is popular at many fine restaurants these days. It does offer seasonal specials that included roasted quail with baby greens when we visited. One part of the menu that has changed almost not at all since Tommy Toy’s was established is their Signature Dinner. This six-course tasting menu ($75 per person) is what we opted for.

To accompany the dinner, our friends brought a 2006 Truchard Chardonnay and a 2005 PharoahMoans Paso Robles Syrah. More on those in a bit as the wine list at Tommy Toy’s includes a pretty good selection of wines with an emphasis on California and France. California reds show a strong bias toward Cabernet and Merlot with just a few Pinot Noir and no California Syrah. There are two Zinfandels. The California whites are almost all Napa or Sonoma Chardonnays, though there are a handful of Sauvignon Blanc, one Gewurtztraminer and one Riesling. Prices on the 28 whites range from $35 for the 2007 Chateau St. Jean Sonoma County Gewurtztraminer to  $153 for the 2006 Peter Michael “La Carriere” Sonoma County Chardonnay. The majority of selections fall between $40 and $60. The reds range from $39 for the 2005 Hahn Monterey Pinot Noir to $355 for the 2005 Peter Michael “Les Pavots” Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and the 30 Northern California reds include popular high-end wines such as Caymus Vineyard “Special Select,” Opus One, Silver Oak and Heitz Cellars Martha’s Vineyard. The majority of reds are above $75 with quite a few hitting two or three bills.

The meal started with a delicious appetizer of Crispy Prawns Chinoise with Five Spices and Baby Greens. It consisted of two pan-seared shrimp with a lovely caramelized spice  glaze and two slices of wok-fried lotus root with the same glaze on a bed of greens. We paired this with a German Auslese Riesling I had brought along. (Not even we can drink only California wines.) It was an excellent pairing and a very nice opening to the dinner.

Next up was an oven-baked Seafood Bisque. This is served in a real coconut and topped with a puff pastry chapeau. The pastry was perfectly done and the soup nicely textured, bisquey but not too heavily creamed. There were bits of lobster and shrimp along with veggies and the soup also picked up some nice accents from the coconut meat. We were cautioned to be careful not to burn ourselves on the soup, though we wish we’d been slightly more aggressive as it had cooled a little more than we’d like by the time we finished. We managed to pry out and enjoy some of the coconut meat and all wished we had more appropriate tools for that. However, going at the thing with a chisel wouldn’t really fit with the overall mood of the place. In any case, I’d never seen this presentation of a seafood soup before and thought it was quite charming. And we pushed on with the Riesling which still went nicely, though the Truchard would have done as well.

The seafood course was a Fresh Whole Main Lobster served in dramatic fashion. Each diner receives their own platter with a nice mound of Chinese crystal noodles thin as angel hair. Atop the noodles is the lobster meat, removed from the shell and in bite-sized pieces along with mushrooms and all coated with a delicately tasty peppercorn sauce. The food is covered by the (cleaned) lobster tail. The empty lobster body, complete with head, stands erect in the middle of the plate giving you the evil eye(s). Never fear though, the claws have been steamed and cracked for your enjoyment and lie harmlessly on either side of their former owner. The server takes away the tail shell and points out that the head is all show, no goo. Again, the food tasted wonderful. We do have two minor quibbles with the menu description though. First, though you receive a whole lobster shell, you don’t get a “full” lobster. You get a smallish tail and two claws only. That’s more than enough for a multi-course tasting menu, but not quite what the name implies. Also, the menu promises young chives. In fact, they are fairly thick strips of raw green onion. They will be too strongly flavored for the rest of the dish to the palates of some and they definitely weren’t chives.

We broke out the 2006 Truchard Chard with this dish and its hard to think of a better pairing at just $30 retail for any lobster dish than this wine. We’ve previously stated our fondness for Truchard Vineyards-based wines and this was just one more reason why we love them. To us, they offer not only very good quality with excellent balance but exceptional value. Truchard reserves just 20% of their fruit for making their own wines but winemaker Sal De Ianni does it proud, working to provide full flavor but with a deft touch that never takes the wine over the top. The Carneros cool-climate Chardonnay grapes are pressed whole-cluster and then fermented 100% in French oak. However, only a third of the oak is new so the wine is soft and has nuanced vanilla, toast and oak but is not “oaky.” It sits for a further 10 months in barrel on the lees at that point, gaining character. The wine undergoes malolactic fermentation with battonage, but the ML is stopped at just 30%. This means that the wine has a creamy mouthfeel and is not aggressively acidic but is not “buttery” or flabby. The cool climate helps keep the alcohol at a very reasonable 14.1 percent. The end result is a smooth, soft wine with complex aromas that include those common to cool climates (apple, pear and a bit of lemon zest) along with the tropical flavors more common to Napa and the delicate spice and vanilla from the gentle application of French wood.

The next dish was one for which we have a real weakness: Peking Duck. It’s one of the dishes by which we judge Chinese restaurants. It was good at Tommy Toy’s. A waiter carves the duck for you table side and presents you with the finished plate. Each person receives two of the soft, sweet steamed rolls that are sliced and filled with two or three slices of duck, plum sauce and a bit of cilantro. The skin was reasonably crisp, though still attached to the fat. This made it easier to handle and also moister than it might otherwise be. We’ve seen some people refer to it as greasy. It’s duck fat, people! That’s a large part of the pleasure duck provides. The meat was tender, tasty and perfectly cooked. As Peking Duck devotees, we longed for more. We wanted to chew on a leg at least. But, again, this is a tasting menu and there were probably a full day’s calories in the serving we’d already gotten anyway so we didn’t whimper.

We were finishing our Chardonnay as we began with the duck and that was also a nice pairing. But Truchard doesn’t last long around us. Faced with an empty bottle, we opened the 2005 PharoahMoans Paso Robles Syrah. Now, this wine is good but it’s also a hoot. The heavy dark bottle has a front label designed to resemble the Rosetta Stone. There’s a bit of hieroglyphic, a bit of Arabic and enough English in a typeface reminiscent of Rosetta-stone Greek to fill in the details and remind you of where the grapes are from. And, while we just had the one bottle to enjoy, the wine is available from the producer only in 6-bottle triangular wood cases (limited to one case per person). That’s right. In profile the cases look like pyramids. It’s amusing packaging, especially if you’ve already killed a bottle or two. But, at $750 for a six-stack, the wine has to be good too. It can’t be a gimmick wine, nor can it pay off on the whole Egyptian theme by tasting like something that’s been stored in an amphora jug since 3000 BC.

Fortunately, this wine is made by Stephen Asseo of the highly (and deservedly) acclaimed L’Aventure winery. Having started as a winemaker in Bordeaux, he’s focused on showing the quality of fruit and terroir. And he knows that oak staves are tools for enhancing wine, not cudgels. This particular wine was from the first vintage of production. It is inky and full-bodied, but both the tannins and alcohol are well within reason. The rich dark berry fruit and vanilla accented the duck and cut through its fat but was never overwhelming.

The wine was also good with the final savory course, Medallions of Filet Mignon. two thick slices of very tender filet were expertly seared and each bite was gently flavored with garlic, black pepper and herb. The meat was served on a bed of delicious Four Flavors Fried Rice.

The final course was a flan-shaped Peach Mousse in Fresh Strawberry Coulis. It was light, refreshing, not overly sweet and a very good complement to the meat dishes that had preceded it.

Tommy Toy’s has other menus, including a good lunch deal and more extensive (and expensive) dinner tasting sets. We were happy with what we had, certainly did not leave hungry, and think that $75 is a fair price given the atmosphere, service, quality and presentation. Especially since the dishes included pricey fare such as lobster, duck and filet mignon. At the same time, you need to go in with the proper expectations. It is a special-occasion place. You aren’t going to get a big tub of rice and three heaping bowls of food plunked down a lazy susan for $40 and you won’t get fortune cookies. Also, while the food tastes very good and is presented with flair in a way that was unique when the place opened, it is no longer cutting edge. Asian Fusion has exploded and many places offer more adventurous or unusual food and other presentation-focused places will stack food high and in more architecturally unlikely ways. The dining room is fancy and elegant in a classical sense but not “designed” to create a “mood” and “experience” like Hakkasan in London that we do enjoy. And, though $75 is a fair price, it is not a mind-blowing deal. It’s a similar price to what you’d pay at Chez Panisse (where tip is included) and is just $20 less than we paid last night for a 5-course tasting menu (review upcoming) at Mario Batalli’s Del Posto that completely redefined Italian food for us and came with equal atmosphere and even better service.

Tommy Toy’s Chinoise Cuisine is a very good Chinese restaurant. It provides beautiful, high-quality dishes that are not “authentic” but rather marry Chinese flavors and techniques with those of France. The service is good and the atmosphere is fancy in a comfortable way. The place is a great setting for your big dinner or meeting and is intended to make everyone feel happy and special, not to challenge one’s taste buds or dominate the conversation with baffling food science or exotic farm-brand ingredients. Recommended.

The 2006 Truchard Chardonnay is very good and a bargain at $30. Highly recommended.

The 2005 PharoahMoans Paso Robles Syrah is a kick in the pants and the tastebuds, though both pricey and hard to find. Recommended.

This article is original to Copyright 2009 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.