Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Wood Tavern in Oakland’s Rockridge

This is an occasional report on return visits to restaurants that I’ve already reviewed.

Front-row Dining at the Chef’s Counter
6317 College Ave., Oakland
Outer Rockridge neighborhood
PH: 510.654.6607
Lunch daily (except Sunday) from 11:30 a.m.; dinner nightly from 5:30 p.m.
Reservations, major credit cards accepted

Previous visits: February 2008, September 2008

Wood Tavern has hit its groove as a neighborhood brasserie. When I recently returned to this 3-year-old spot in my Rockridge neighborhood, it was bustling with an air of familiarity and precision.

Many of the bartenders and wait staff looked familiar from my earlier visits, which mean this popular dining establishment has built a strong core of servers happy to be working there. This just bodes well for the diners, who are welcomed like regulars and get served by what appears to be a fine-tuned machine.

Since I was eating alone without reservations, I arrived early on a weeknight to grab a seat at the bar. But already at 5:45 p.m., the long copper-top bar was full. I felt nearly rejected until the hostess suggested I sit at the Chef’s counter—a four- stool seating area facing the open kitchen station.

I never saw the Chef’s counter before, but I was happy to pull up a stool, always ready for a free show. Wood Tavern’s counter is very small and intimate, so you’re really close to the fire. (Don’t worry, I was only splattered once from a speck of oil. Most of the time you don’t really feel the heat. It’s not like Benihana.)

Wood Tavern changes its menu with the season, so tonight I dined on its spring menu, starting with the “Calamari e Polpo” or braised calamari and octopus with chickpea ($10). Both the squid and octopus were cooked tender and had a light broth as to not to overpower the natural tastes of the calamari. I’m a big fan of squid that’s not fried so this hit the spot for me.

A very spring dish was the asparagus salad ($9), which was one of only two salad options. (I really wished there were more salad choices.) The asparagus salad was served with diced eggs and frisee all dressed in a truffle vinaigrette. The asparagus on this night was a bit on the thick side, although it was cooked perfectly tender. The vinaigrette was very light, so I hardly tasted it. Overall, this was fresh and seasonal, but nothing exciting.

For the main courses, Wood Tavern offers some amazingly hefty choices like the popular thick pork chop. But tonight (since I already started with two courses), I went with the rigatoni with a veal-pork Bolognese ($19).

The pasta was wonderfully comforting, with the distinct flavors of rich veal and pork cooked for hours, their taste profiles melding together into one. This heavy pasta dish is brightened by the few chopped pieces of Picholine green olives on top—an interesting twist that I now sometimes do in my meat sauces at home.

I was nearly full, but I was tempted by dessert. Especially the Strawberry-Ginger Cake ($8) built up Napoleon-style by layering the strawberries and cream with the ginger cake. The cake portion was especially lovely because it was airy like a scone but had nice crispy edges. The fresh strawberries of the season were joined by a balanced rhubarb sauce.

Side note: Executive Chef Maximilian DiMare could be seen throughout the night overseeing the cooking stations and chatting up guests in the dining area or bar. Wood Tavern looks like it gets many return visitors because Chef DiMare seemed to recognize many of them.

Dinner at Wood Tavern is always supported by the strong bar program, which I leaned on this evening for my classic dirty vodka martini and a nice red wine with my pasta (oops, forgot what variety it was but they’re all good).

It had been awhile since my last visit, but Wood Tavern is still as popular—with good reason with its friendly service and solid dishes. After my recent dinner, I made a promise to myself to not stay away as long between visits because this is a favorite that shouldn’t be ignored.

Update experience (previous 4.25): Still going strong

Wood Tavern on Urbanspoon


Carolyn Jung said...

Strawberry ginger cake? Oh my, oh my! Two of my very favorite ingredients in the world together in one.

A said...

i've been wanting to try this place forever, maybe i'll go this summer.

Unknown said...

I can hardly wait! O yum!

Anonymous said...

Accurate food and vibe description that certainly does the experience justice!
Must note, however, as pleasant as chef Max Dimare is, he is rarely found outside the kitchen -- the gentleman on a first name basis with masses who is singularly pictured aside the Side Note is Proprietor Rich Wood.

Single Guy Ben said...

Oh, thanks for the clarification about Dimare/Wood. I thought when he walked by I saw on his white coat the words chef, so I thought he must be the exec chef.