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CHEAP EATS

A bumpy start, but Tom can cook

Email|Print| Text size + By Sheryl Julian
October 2, 2003

My ophthalmologist has a way of shining that tiny, piercing light into my eyes while he tells me about his latest favorite restaurant. He knows everything from here to the Berkshires. After a recent examination, as soon as I could see again, I scribbled down the name he gave me: Tom Can Cook. Get the big bowl of soup. Two days later, I dashed over.

It was a Saturday night, and Tom's was packed. But things went smoothly: A waitress arrived at the table quickly, took the orders, and within seconds (honestly, hardly a minute could have gone by), she appeared with one of the appetizers. Scallion pancakes ($4.95), which were fried and loaded with scallions, came with a peanut dipping sauce -- but surely had been sitting in a warming oven. Steamed shumai ($4.95) were doughy, though the house mustard sauce, a surprise on this Asian fusion menu, was slightly hot, warm, and delicious. Edamame ($4.25), the steamed Japanese beans with slightly salty skins, were pleasingly plump.

Things were looking up. A seaweed salad ($4.95), all glassy green, was deliciously seasoned with sesame.

And then perfection: okdol bibim bap ($12.95), a Korean dish of rice, vegetables, beef, and egg cooked in a ceramic pot so the rice stays piping hot. A warm, spicy red sauce, stirred into the rice mixture, mingled with the broken soft-cooked egg and seemed to bring all the ingredients to life.

Tom, if you can make bibim bap so perfectly, surely you can add flavor to the dull tofu in the hot pot ($10.95), a brimming bowl with slippery glass noodles, broccoli, baby corn, and cauliflower. The broth was not at all fragrant with ginger and sesame, as the menu promised.

Naming a restaurant Tom Can Cook probably seemed like a hoot two years ago when the place opened near the Embassy movie theater. Tom Viyaran and his wife, Vareeya, owned Erawan of Siam, which is nearby.

When Erawan turned 15, the couple decided to branch out. With partners, they opened Asian Grill, also on Moody Street, in which they're no longer involved. Then came Tom, then Fusian Express in Somerville, and Siam Grill in Middleton.

A partner in Asian Grill was Korean, which is where Tom learned his bibim bap. I'm not sure where he learned tamarind duck (13.95), which was breaded with a thick coating, fried, and buried in a sauce that seemed to contain the kitchen sink, including broccoli, snow peas, pineapple, and tomatoes. Grilled jumbo sizzling shrimp ($14.95) was equally overgarnished, but even with a dark, slightly sweet generic Chinese sauce, the shrimp were perfectly cooked.

We returned another night to find Tom's practically empty, the same efficient waitress on duty, and a very good cook in the kitchen. Fried coconut calamari ($6.95) were hot, crisp, very tender, and fresh out of the fryer. The brown rice was nutty, the texture just right. An unusual pad Thai ($8.50), slightly sweet and tomatoey and not drowned in peanuts, the way it often is, contained big morsels of chicken.

The house salad with the red snapper ($14.95) had crisp vegetables and a light, vaguely curry-tasting dressing. The fish sat on Tom's very good seaweed salad and was garnished by too-al-dente vegetables. The little snapper itself was hopelessly overcooked. Was it made earlier?

On a third visit (still not many diners), I finally had Tom's superb "special" soup bowl ($8.95), enough for two, with an intense broth, noodles, chicken, beef, and shrimp. This is the soup that my ophthalmologist liked -- and rightly so. A freshly grilled chicken salad ($5.95) with a creamsicle dressing (ginger and carrot) was delightful.

Apparently, Tom cooks very well when he's not cutting corners.

TOM CAN COOK

Cuisine: Asian

Address: 374 Moody Street, Waltham

Phone: 781-781-6977

Hours: Mon. - Thurs. 11:30 a.m. - 3:30 p.m. and 4:30 - 10 p.m.
Fri. 11:30 a.m. - 3:30 p.m. and 4:30 - 11 p.m.
Sat. 11:30 a.m. - 11 p.m.
Sun. 11:30 a.m. - 10 p.m.

Prices: $8.50-$16

Comments: Reservations.

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