After a brief semi-retirement that saw the demise of the Here To Serve restaurant group he founded, Tom Catherall returns to the Atlanta dining scene tonight at 5 p.m with the opening of Tom Tom at 1000 Virginia Avenue N.E. in the Virginia-Highland space formerly occupied by Noche.
Billed as “classic Catherall,” in many ways the concept is an update of Azalea and the original Tom Tom — which in the early ’90s could be counted among Atlanta’s first chef-driven restaurants, celebrated as fun, sexy places where Asian, Spanish and Southern ingredients came together in surprising fusions of flavor and technique.
One of Catherall’s best known creations, a whole, sizzling catfish, stuffed with fresh ginger and anointed with chile-black bean sauce, was deeply scored into bite-size morsels that could be picked up with chopsticks.
The dish will make a return as a limited item on the reimagined Tom Tom menu, along with a wide array of starters, small plates and entrees at price points from $4-$14, and $20 weeknight specials for two, such as whole fried chicken with mac and cheese, and paella.
On Thursday afternoon, Catherall was at the restaurant, where he was trying out the brand new kitchen, while a whirlwind of workers were finishing up an extensive remodeling job.
The design by Dillard Pierce Associates, best known for high-end home projects, updates the front bar area, and lightens and brightens the atmosphere of the cozy dining room, with white floor tiles, white-washed brick walls, and soft banquettes.
“I didn’t want the restaurant to look anything like Noche,” Catherall said. “So I said let’s start with a new menu, too. I went with what I think is more current — a bit Spanish, a bit American, a bit Southern, and a bit Mexican.
“We have a lot of share plates, and the tacos we had before, but the entrees are two-thirds the size and less expensive than you’d get at other places. It’s the right size portion you should be eating. And if you’re sharing several things, it’s enough food.”
General manager Chet Huntley, a longtime Catherall cohort going back to the Azalea days, put together the beverage menu, which he said was designed “not to be too left or too right but down the middle.”
It features 10 house cocktails priced in the $10-$12 range, including Tom’s Basil Smash made with Old Tom gin. Look for 30-plus wines by the glass or the bottle ($8-$50), with an emphasis lighter, food-friendly offerings, and a good selection of draft, bottled and canned craft beers ($6-$7).
“It’s great to be part of a new beginning,” Huntley said of starting over with Catherall, after a recent stint as general manager at Dolce in Buckhead. “I’m excited. I opened up this place in 1999 when it was Noche.
“Most our employees here are former Here To Serve employees. And pastry chef Joanie Trotochaud is with us, too, so we’re bringing it back together with Tom.”
Asked if he thought the 2016 reprise of Tom Tom could be considered a return to his roots, Catherall nodded in agreement.
“This is really a mixture,” he said.”If I’d opened Azalea now, this is what it would be. If I’d opened Tom Tom now, this is what it would be. So it’s for 2016, reborn.”
Take a sneak peek at some of the new Tom Tom menu items here.
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