A Nifty '90s Kind Of Place

DINING OUT

July 25, 1993|By ELIZABETH LARGE

The Tomato Palace, 10221 Wincopin Circle, Columbia, (410) 715-0211. Open for lunch and dinner Mondays to Saturdays, dinner only Sundays. Major credit cards. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair-accessible: yes. Prices: $5.50-$12.95.

In concept, the Tomato Palace is the quintessential restaurant for the '90s. It's as if every restaurant trend we've seen coming down the pike for the last couple of years has coalesced into one fabulous moneymaking machine. Above all, this very pleasant restaurant sells style. And the price is right.

Start with the name: You've got to love the name. It's not John and Tom's Pizzeria and Pasta Parlor -- which by rights it could be, given the food. (John Laytham is a co-owner and Tom Meyer the executive chef of Clyde's, the parent restaurant. The two share a kitchen.)

It's the Tomato Palace.

Wow. Already I want to eat there.

Sure, the food is those old standbys, pizza and pasta, but upscale Italian is Hot with a capital H. That means a wood-burning oven, and grilled eggplant as well as anchovies on the pizza, and homemade pasta.

The Tomato Palace is moderately priced and family-oriented (important now that baby boomers are serious parents). You may think this is a very adult restaurant because of its classy decor -- open kitchen, sliding glass doors, red brick floor, white walls, whimsical chairs by furniture maker Peter Danko. But your kids think it's really neat because they get a free box of Crayolas, pictures to color, an inflatable plum tomato toy and cute tomato-shaped cinnamon candies at the end of the meal. And everybody loves the cheerful tomato mural by artist Sally Callmer.

A '90s restaurant makes good use of technology, of course, sthe Tomato Palace gives you a beeper if there isn't a table available. You can wander along the pretty lakefront while you wait. And wait you probably will; on a Thursday night at 7:30 it took half an hour to seat us. (No reservations are accepted.)

When your turn comes 'round, fight for a table on the terraceThis is the kind of casual food that tastes even better outdoors, and this is the perfect place to put outdoor tables. You have a great view of the lake and of all the people out strolling on a warm summer night. There are no cars.

Like any stylish '90s restaurant, everything is made on thpremises -- "from the sauce to the sausages," the menu promises. (Everything, that is, except the cheese ravioli and the chocolate-dipped cannoli, according to our waitress.) That includes the freshly baked bread, chewy and pleasantly coarse.

Starters are limited to a soup and a few salads. The soup of the day was -- what else? -- cream of tomato. It's a smooth, pretty soup, sharply flavorful, its pale pink set off by a leaf or two of fresh basil.

Also not to be missed is the avocado, arugula and chopped plum tomato salad with crisp crumbled bacon and a tangy balsamic vinaigrette. A super salad, and the high point of the meal. Actually, all the salads we tried were inventive and handsomely done. The house salad has romaine, cucumbers, red onion and, of course, plum tomatoes. The pepper Parmesan dressing isn't the usual thick sort, but light and very pleasing. A more substantial salad of red leaf lettuce, Gorgonzola cheese and walnuts had the added virtue of no tomatoes. (It's nice for a contrast.)

I would definitely order a pizza again. Ours had a great crust anis modestly priced. What I wouldn't do is order the Italian grilled vegetable pizza, with an inordinate amount of zucchini along with the eggplant, onion and "oven dried" tomatoes. I like zucchini, but not on pizza. (You never know till you try.)

The best of our main courses was the house cannelloni, withomemade pasta wrapped around three cheeses, chopped mortadella and spinach. Bathed in a light, creamy cheese sauce, it was worth every luscious calorie.

The worst was chicken and sausage cacciatore over spinach fettuccine. Nothing wrong with the homemade sausage heavily flavored with fennel or the cacciatore sauce with yellow peppers, but the chicken tasted -- not to put too fine a point on it -- unpleasant.

Any with-it restaurant for the health-conscious '90s should have fresh fruit for dessert, and the Tomato Palace does. If you want to have your cake and eat it too (or maybe I should say fresh fruit), have the fresh berry shortcake. This time of year it's strawberry. If the Tomato Palace learns how to make its traditional biscuit shortcake so it's not chewy (I suppose from overhandling the dough), this will be a dessert to be reckoned with.

The warm chocolate bread pudding made from homemade brioche with "crunchy toffee" wasn't as fabulous as it sounded (partly because the toffee was missing). The best bet is the comparatively modest bocci ball made of chocolate and vanilla ice cream surrounding almonds and a maraschino cherry -- the whole thing dipped in dark chocolate.

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