23 March, 2016
Wood TavernPosted in : Beer, Wine, Sake, Dining in Oakland, CA, Restaurants, Rose Wine on by : The Gourmez
Wood Tavern is a near universally acclaimed restaurant in north Oakland, at least among my circles. It’s upscale in terms of prices and dish sophistication, although the atmosphere is casual, assuming casual is what you’d call elbow-to-elbow lack of space and sucking in your stomach so you don’t knock over the neighboring diner’s wine glass as you slid into your seat.
What I’m saying is the place is always super busy and cramped, and thus, perhaps not as inviting as it might be. Yet the food and attentive service is closer to white-tablecloth in execution than most other restaurants packed with small wooden tables.
In other words, I’m not crazy about Wood Tavern’s layout, but having gone three times now over the course of the last year, I can say the food is definitely worth putting up with a lack of space, as are the cocktails and wine selection. Spoiler alert: I have not tried the establishment’s hamburger, which garners the most praise from my friends. That’s because I’ve been too intrigued by more inventive dishes!
The braised rabbit ragu over pappardelle ($23) currently on the menu offers robust flavor and substantial chunks of delicately cooked rabbit over fresh pasta. Parmesan cheese, often added to Italian dishes by habit more than thoughtfulness, provides a nice contrast of flavors.
I’ve had sandwiches during lunch twice at Wood Tavern, and the porchetta ($14) pictured above blew me away with the quality of the meat. It’s a simple sandwich; only a sparse sprinkle of watercress, a garlic spread, and sundried tomato aioli accompany the pork on a soft Acme Bread deli roll. The spreads bring a lot of vibrancy and a little unexpected spice to that inch and a half of buttery, beautiful warmth they call porchetta. The oils unite with the fatty meat’s richness to create a luxury every bit as indulgent as foie gras without any of the latter’s less appealing characteristics.
The excellent sandwich roll is worth noting on its own — so soft, so perfectly salted! If you’re at Wood Tavern for dinner, make sure you request the complimentary bread basket that offers an equally impressive selection of Acme’s levain breads. The walnut is a particular delight.
The pickles and coleslaw that come standard with most Wood Tavern sandwiches are less notable because Wood Tavern forgoes cream dressing for the coleslaw only to drench the cabbage, bell pepper, scallion, parsley, and chive in oil — good quality oil, but just oil nonetheless. I ate my ramekin’s worth, but I couldn’t help but wish the coleslaw had made a livelier impression. The pickle slices also lacked flavor. I’m not a proponent of strong vinegar, but I think both sides would have benefitted from a more liberal use of it.
The porchetta sandwich went nicely with a glass of sparkling crement d’alsace rosé from Domaine Allimant-Laugner.
My Vivino review reads “Just a touch of sweetness in this fully bubbled rosé. Float away like Glenda the Good Witch with its light and breezy berry and hint of a steely finish. Delightful.” I’ve also had the Steinway cocktail ($11), made with George Dickel rye whiskey, Lillet Blanc, Aperol, orange bitters, and lemon juice. It’s a refined and refreshing take on classic whiskey cocktails, which is challenging to pull off with the omnipresence of that particular category of drink.
On a previous visit, I had the rock cod sandwich ($14). The frying technique was excellent, yielding a crunchy batter with perfectly cooked fish, but the sandwich overall tasted too salty for it to be a truly pleasurable memory. It comes with romaine, pepperoncini, and tartar sauce.
The evening I had the rabbit ragout pappardelle, I glimpsed the winter pavlova ($8) on the dessert menu. Though I was too full then, I determined to come back another day to try it.
I am a big fan of cookies and desserts that capitalize on hardened meringue, and pavlova is the classic example of that, usually layering cream (lemon in this case, though often whipped) between layers of meringue. It all gets topped with fruit. Wood Tavern’s presentation impressed with such a beautiful display of bright and soft colors, starring the Cara Cara orange and grapefruit slices and a dusting of pistachios. The dessert did not disappoint, offering the satisfying resistance of meringue shell and silkier forkfuls of meringue hidden deep within the rings. While a great dessert, I do think incorporating pistachios into the cream, which did not taste much like lemon anyhow, might do a better job providing a contrast to the fruits’ acidity. Imagine the additional color, too! Perhaps Wood Tavern is showing restraint; that may be too much brilliance for any one dessert to handle.
Yes, I have critiques for Wood Tavern, but overall, this is a restaurant that offers a fantastic quality of ingredients and imaginative, well-integrated dishes. I’ll be back…the next time I’m willing to wade through a sea of elbows in pursuit of something truly special.
6317 College Avenue
$12 – $36