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It’s a neighborhood I’ve just never frequented despite the great reputation it has for small local eateries. This couple blocks of 39th Street near KU Med is lined with glowing windows and couples meandering the sidewalk, some deciding which place to dine. The Volker area has the feel of a small neighborhood in Chicago offering ethnic fare, elegant dining, local favorites, your basic breakfast diner and more.

On this this trip, as with most, I came with a purpose. Thomas, I was told by a very adamant individual, is the best restaurant in town. Although not quite convinced of his statement, his passion really got me wondering if I’ve been missing something.

It was a wet weekend night and our table was ready when we arrived despite being 15 minutes early. We had hoped to have a cocktail at the bar before dinner, but only a few intermittenly-placed seats were open. Not a good  setup for our party of three.

The exposed brick walls, handpainted art, and naked duct-work were appealing inside the small but somewhat airy room. I liked the atmosphere right away and the friendly, patient server perpetuated the warm, welcoming vibe. The paper menu listed a large selection of small plates – many featuring traditional items  you would expect to find as an entree. Unfortunately, it seems most of the attention goes into these appetizers, leaving a sparse selection for the main course.

Goat Cheese Marinara with Toasted Baguettes

As usual, I ordered a number of small plates to start. Ultimately, none of them were great but none were truly terrible. The calamari was nice and crispy with a flavorful aioli. The burgendy beef tips were well-seasoned, but a little chewy and lacked the port reduction listed or any kind of jus. The crab cakes were bland and boring. The marinara with goat cheese was the best of the bunch – warm and rich, but not memorable. If only the marinara were chunkier or fresher.

Beef Tips on Fried Potato Strings

Now, my dinner salad was just wonderful. It had two pieces of pan-seared asparagus over a nice mixture of greens and two toasted baguette slices. The smooth balsamic was served on the side. It was just what I was looking for.

Buttermilk Cider Chicken

Dining with family has its perks, and being able to sample every entree on the table is one of them. The Buttermilk Cider Chicken is one of the house specialties and I agree it was the best entree of the night. Boneless and deep brown, the flat chicken breast was covered in a light melty cheese, likely swiss. It had soft chunks of apples on top and a savory pan jus. The meat was tender and flavorful. A very nice dish I would order again, but probably not drive across town to get.

A taste of the balsamic grilled vegetable rissotto was fine, but quite unimpressive as risottos go. None of the main courses got my attention, so I went back to the small plates list and ordered the scallops and mini-pork shank as my meal.

Small Plates: Pork Shank, Scallops

Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ve ever had a shank of anything so dry. When you read “shank” on a menu, you expect something slow-cooked and hopefully falling off the bone. Looking back at the menu I suppose I should have paid more attention where it said “lightly fried”.

Under a chutney of tomatoes and herbs, I found the small pan-crusted scallops surrounded by a lemon glaze.
I was surprised by the crust and rather unimpressed. The sauce was a touch too tart, just so much that it covered the flavor of the scallops.

What I absolutley LOVED about Thomas was the paino player tucked into the corner by the window. He didn’t belt out cheesy broadway tunes or try to be too cool. He played popular favorites, both old and new, and took just about any request. From the perfect moodsetting selections like Adele and Neil Daimond to some that almost made you chuckle – Warren G’s Regulator and Gagsta’s Paradise – it was fantastic!

At the end of the day, my advice is to get after-dinner drinks at Thomas and take in the tunes!

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