Thomas Perez pours a crisp Spanish Albariño for a couple at the bar in his restaurant, Plane and Level. He’s describing his time in Spain, where he studied oenology. His favorite food and wine city in the world is San Sebastian in the Basque Country region. “It’s where I got this idea, this concept,” he explains.
Perez and partner Brian Culwell opened Plane and Level in 2020 in a cozy building on Midway in Old Town Spring. They’ve decked out the space in beautiful lights and shiny sheet metal, the kind used as the “skin” on vintage airplanes.
“I’ve opened a few luxury hotels and restaurants,” says Thomas, whose resume includes stints at La Table in Houston, the luxury hill country ranch resort The Inn at Dos Brisas, and at L’Auberge in Carmel, California. “I didn’t want to do the same thing again. I wanted to do something unique. I wanted a statement, people taking pictures and posting.” He says he was brainstorming, throwing out ideas, when the notion of a vintage plane came into his mind. The concept came to include a bar top made from a vintage plane wing.
The food at Plane and Level is a tribute to Thomas’s love of Spain and the wines he experienced there. He sources the restaurant’s impressive wine list from small family wineries in Spain as well as Italy, Slovenia and France. “Most wines that we acquire have never been to Texas or to the U.S. before. These are tiny wineries. Sometimes we’re buying their entire production.”
True to the restaurants and tapas bars of Spain, a cluster of jamon Iberico de bellota legs dangle from the ceiling, and another one, ready for slicing, sits atop the bar behind a row of wine glasses, perfect for a pre-dinner nosh as guests ponder the menu.
“My first passion was the kitchen, and then I got into wine,” says Thomas. “I’ve pursued wine for most of my adult life. It wasn’t until this opportunity that I came back to the kitchen.”
Plane and Level has a loyal following who are attracted to the menu’s Spanish delicacies, Thomas’s astute wine pairings, and the precision of the preparation. On a recent evening, a number of the tables in the small restaurant were filled with guests who had driven from inside the Loop to get here, having previously bonded with Thomas during his time at La Table, he says. Other of his guests are patrons cultivated during the COVID-19 shut-down and the limited-seating months that were hard times for some restaurants. Thomas says he chose to view this time as an opportunity, setting up a wine-tasting table outside the restaurant and striking up conversations with passers-by, who were impressed by Thomas’s hospitality and the superb wines he was pouring.
The evening we were there, Thomas pulled out all the shops, showing the depth and breadth of what Plane and Level has to offer. For an amuse bouche he presented guests with a silky asparagus velouté with Spanish pimiento. This was followed by plump PEI oysters on the half shell with a delicate mignonette, and then a soft-boiled egg custard, served in the shell and topped with a crown of osetra caviar.
Galician-style octopus is a mainstay of Spanish cuisine, and Thomas’s pulpo dish with peppers, saffron and patatas was spot-on, as were his crispy croquetas de chorizo with house-made aioli. The albondigas–small pork and beef meatballs–with tomato, manchego and black truffle, were equally delicious and true to their origins. A luxurious duck breast with butternut squash, huckleberry gastrique, and seared Hudson Valley fois gras, offered a lovely layering of flavors and textures, the fresh squash purée providing a playful contrast to the mellow duck and crispy fois gras. “Most of our ingredients come from Spain,” says Thomas. “Our herbs and vegetables are grown locally. We have a local farmer five minutes away.”
An outdoor patio seating area was recently expanded. Across the patio from the restaurant is a building that Thomas and Brian have turned into an event space for private parties, rehearsal dinners, and birthday parties. The restaurant is growing, along with its customer base.
“I’ve been in the business all my life,” says Thomas. “It’s kind of rare to have what we have.” His mission is to make sure his guests at Plane and Level feel the same way. “If you don’t wake up the next day thinking about what you ate here, I haven’t done my job.”