Thursday, February 28, 2008

Dish on Dining: Wood Tavern

A Year Later, It’s Still a Hot Spot in Oakland
6317 College Ave., Oakland
Outer Rockridge neighborhood
PH: 510.654.6607
Lunch, Mon.–Sat.; dinner nightly from 5:30 p.m.
Reservations, major credit cards accepted

This is a review that was a year in the making. I’ve tried twice to visit Wood Tavern soon after it opened in my Rockridge neighborhood, but was rebuffed both times. (First it was a Saturday night and they said it was a three-hour wait even though we arrived at 6 p.m.; the second time after arriving at 5:30 p.m. I tried to get a seat at the bar but the host couldn’t tell if a group was going to leave or not nor did she seem to want to find out.)

This is the kind of food frenzy (The Chronicle’s Michael Bauer named Wood Tavern one of the top 10 new restaurants of 2007) that makes me want to not like this place.

But I can’t. I. Love. Wood. Tavern.

A sure sign of its success is that Wood Tavern has completely erased the collective memory of the restaurant that was there before them (it was the popular Asian-fusion Grasshopper).

A couple of weeks ago, Wood Tavern celebrated its one-year anniversary. Opened by Rich and Rebekah Wood (formerly of Frascati in San Francisco), the handsome American Bistro-type spot is consistently busy for lunch and dinner, serving up bold California cuisine from the kitchen of Executive Chef Maximilian DiMare.

Getting dinner reservations for this East Bay hot spot can take up to a month’s lead time. So for my first visit, I decided to squeeze in for lunch on a Saturday.

I was the first to get a spot at the bar when I arrived at 11:45 a.m., but the restaurant quickly filled up while I was there and a few other solo diners joined me at the bar later.

The lunch menu is a condensed version of what I saw of the dinner menu on the restaurant’s Web site, plus they added a section of sandwiches. I decided to start with the Tavern Onion Soup ($9) and chose the Day Boat Scallop Salad ($17) as my main.

The soup was a rich broth that was covered with a cheesy layer of Swiss and Parmesan. It was substantial, probably because it contained braised pork pieces. Although the pork gave the soup a rich dimension, I thought it was an odd take on the classic French onion soup because the pork flavor really overpowered the sweetness of the onions. Still, it was tasty and I ate it all.

When my scallop salad arrived, it was this huge and beautifully designed plate of seared scallops, spinach, frisee, bacon bits and bread crumbs. It was held together by a creamy dressing with swirls of balsamic vinegar. When I took my first bite, the first word that came to my mind was “balance.” All the ingredients contrasted with each other, but in a way that in the end was a perfect harmony of flavors. (The only minor point for me was that my scallops were a bit on the raw side in the center, which is how most restaurants serve them but I like mines a bit more done.)

Buoyed by lunch, I decided to return for dinner on a Tuesday night. Still concerned that it would be hard to get a seat at the bar, even on a weeknight, I arrived soon after the kitchen opened at 5:30 p.m. (I actually walked in at 5:45 p.m. because I didn’t want to be the first one for dinner, but it didn’t matter because there were already two couples at the bar and a couple of tables already perusing the menu.)

I have to say the service at the front has become sharper and more efficient since those first few months after Wood Tavern opened. In those early days, the front staff seemed almost a bit smug about the difficulty getting a table, and they didn’t seem to be bothered that people had to wait nearly three hours. Today, I watched as the host warmly welcomed people and gave good guesses of how long a wait would be or made suggestions about when is the best time to return.

Both the lunch and dinner menu offers a “butcher block” with a variety of house-made meats and paté. But I thought it might be too much to order for myself. So I started with the seasonal Dungeness Crab Lyonnais ($15). A twist on the traditional French lyonnais salad, Chef DiMare served up fresh Dungeness crab meat with frisee, smoked bacon in a Champagne vinaigrette topped with a poached egg. It was a refreshing and light start, with the sweetness of the crab contrasting with the bold flavors of bacon. (Side note: there were some odd white cubes in the salad that I didn’t notice described in the menu. They looked and tasted like tiny potato cubes, but I couldn’t say for sure. I can’t say that they really added to the salad.)

For my entrée, I ordered the Grilled Double Cut Pork Chop ($25), which seems to be a mainstay on the seasonal menu. (Other regulars include the Pan Roasted Half Chicken, Niman Ranch Burger and Maple Leaf Duck Breast.) The menu definitely weighs more on the meat side, with maybe just one fish selection and one pasta dish to round it off.

They weren’t kidding when they said double cut. My pork chop was this beautifully grilled huge chunk of meat, surrounded with fingerling potatoes and pieces of kale. The coloring was perfectly golden, adding to its aroma. (Also adding to the dish was a Manhattan I decided to order. My bartender gave me two options for the whiskey and I left it up to him. He came back with this amber-colored drink that had a beautiful fragrance that totally complemented the aroma of the pork.)

I was amazed at how the pork chop was evenly cooked, despite it being at least two inches thick. I used each piece I cut to soak up the natural juice and Marsala wine sauce that was on my plate.

I wanted the meal to keep on coming so I decided to try the house profiteroles for dessert. The ice cream flavor used to stuff the profiteroles changes often. Tonight it was mint chocolate chip.

The profiteroles, while yummy with high-quality ice cream fillings, were just fine. I wasn’t necessarily wowed by the pastry portions.

Prices at Wood Tavern are on the high end for a so-called neighborhood restaurant (in fact, I saw that the prices went up an average $2 compared to last year’s menu). But it would be money well spent. Wood Tavern continues to generate buzz and has kick-started a dining trend in Oakland that’s making this East Bay city a destination spot for restaurateurs escaping the high costs of doing business in San Francisco.

Hmm, maybe I don’t need to catch BART into the city that often anymore?

Single guy rating: 4.25 stars (Expense it if you can find a business reason in Oakland)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Wood Tavern in Oakland


David K. and Ann C.-K. said...

We love Wood Tavern! The only downside is that it's always packed. The good news is that they now have availability on Open Table. Lunch isn't usually a problem to walk in but for dinner I recommend arriving after 9 p.m. or so -- and there's also the bar, which is fun too.

Anonymous said...

That soup looked sooo good, as does everything else, especially the crab salad.

I can't believe they said it was 3 hours for a table, it must be really good.

agent713 said...

Wow, that's one of the highest ratings you've given in awhile. Sounds like a great place!