Seared Scallops with Caviar, Leeks, and Beurre Blanc; Leg of Lamb with Olive Tapenade, Hummus, Jerusalem Artichokes, and Roasted Eggplant and Lemon Beurre Blanc; Panna Cotta with Blood Oranges, Berry Compote, and Walnut Cookies
Occupation: Acquisitions Editor, Book Publishing
Favorite Restaurant: Woodward's Garden
Reviewed Woodward's Garden: Wednesday, January 13, 2006
Too often California-French or New American cuisine can be downright boring -- muddy flavors that repeat themselves in multiple overly-heavy dishes. Woodward’s Garden is everything that California-French cooking is intended to be -- seasonal fruits and vegetables and acute flavors that stand out and separate from one another in the kind of dressy-casual atmosphere that compliments the sensibility of residents in the Bay Area. Every one of my visits to Woodward’s Garden has been distinctive, and this latest met my expectations. We sat in the front room, which I prefer for casual meals; the back room feels more formal and quiet. In the front room, I always have the sense that I’ve been invited into someone’s cottage kitchen, located somewhere between Provence and Sonoma. The décor is simple without being minimal, and the sense of the kitchen is integrated, so that the assortment of pots and pans hanging from a rack as you enter the restaurant provides as much of the ambiance as three ceramic platters on a table in the corner and the white tablecloths and napkins adorning the tables.
Seared scallops are a ubiquitous item on most menus these days --one wonders how it can be done differently. Served over leeks in a beurre blanc and topped with two different types of caviar, this version of the dish gave every flavor to the tongue -- the sweetness of the scallops and leeks, the saltiness of the caviar, the sourness of the touch of lemon in the beurre blanc. The same was true for the trout bruschetta -- sweetness from the roasted peppers, spiciness of the chipotle, saltiness of the trout, and sour of the crusty wheat bread used for the bruschetta -- all without feeling too heavy. The main dishes are also artful. Lamb cooked medium rare was ingeniously paired with homemade hummus. Roasted artichokes and fingerling potatoes rounded out the dish. The butternut squash ravioli escaped being too sweet by the complement of browned butter, toasted macadamia nuts, and bitter wilted greens.
The big mystery was how to pair one bottle of wine with all of these different kinds of dishes. The hostess recommended Trebuchet Pinot Noir. Lively but not overpowering, the wine was a perfect pairing with all of the dishes.
Two chocolate fans took a risk on the panna cotta and were well rewarded. Again, the theme came through The panna cotta was light and completely satisfying. Since the custard was not terribly sweet in and of itself, blood oranges contributed sweetness while the berry compote added tartness and walnut cookies added texture. Despite being utterly full from the other dishes, we scraped the plate clean.
The menu changes daily, so each visit brings something new and exciting to the table; a place to revisit again and again.
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Old Mandarin Islamic
Reviewed Woodward's Garden: Friday, January 6, 2006
What were the outstanding features? (both positive and negative)
I loved this place and I’m so glad to have finally visited, after walking past it for so many years. This place is a gem. I love its small size, great, homey cooking, and the fact that we could see the entire kitchen from our table, and be amazed by the fact that it was all prepared on a single, four-burner stove. The fact that it was women-run and operated was a really refreshing change. Even the
dishwasher was a woman. I loved that. Oh, and I loved that the
place was under a freeway overpass. I feel like that’s a good deterrent to keep away the scene-grubbing droves.
Did anything make you feel uncomfortable? Explain.
I felt badly that my date’s chair was not comfortable and he’s really not one to complain. I wish our server had been a bit warmer, she was all business and hesitant to talk about the menu. The coffee, I heard from my date, was not very good, but I did not try this myself. Oh, and I hate the bar next door (Levende Lounge) and the crowd out front on their cell phones smoking was a bit of a mood-killer.
Did you enjoy your overall experience? Explain.
Absolutely. I will go anywhere for great food. I don’t like it when a place is too posh or too polished. This had the perfect balance of being elegant without even a smidgen of sceney-ness or pretension, and I really, really loved that.
Would you recommend this restaurant to friends? Why or why not?
Most definitely if they were looking for someplace that did the classic very, very well and they had the money to spend. In fact, it would be easy for a large family to take over the back room. You’d love the view out of those front windows, but it would feel like sitting in someone’s kitchen. My mom would love it, as would my father-in-law.
Would you return to the restaurant? Why or why not?
Absolutely, yes. The only deterrent is the cost, which I don’t think is too dear for what you get, but just too rich for my blood. That’s the problem with places like this -- you want it to appeal to people who like things a bit grungy and ruffun, but then to charge prices like that -- minimum $30/person if you drink water -- means that only a certain type of clientele can come and enjoy it. Everything was thoughtful and delicious, even the bread!
Occupation: Analyst Relations Director at a Silicon Valley company
Location: Menlo Park
Favorite Restaurant: Naomi Sushi
Reviewed Woodward's Garden: Saturday, January 7, 2006
There are some restaurants that become instant favorites. Typically they involve a well-balanced menu with imaginative food using excellent seasonal ingredients in an interesting comfortable setting. Woodward’s Garden has become one of my instant favorites for all these reasons. The location is a little funky, at the northern part of the Mission district where the 101 Duboce ramp dumps onto Mission. It’s very low key, so it’s easy to miss, not the least problem is that it is not well marked and is somewhat overshadowed by the brightly signed restaurant next door. However, parking was not a problem, so that is a plus. It is well worth the effort to find it.
When you first walk in the impression is not upscale. Low-watt naked bulbs, crudely finished uneven floor, odd layout, and the very tiny and very beat-up open kitchen right at the door, can provoke a “Whoa, what have I walked into?” moment. After awhile, however, it quickly reels you in, morphing into a hip shabby chic sort of ambiance. Think French garret meets fine gourmet. There is an underlying elegance with comfy chairs and benches, white tablecloths, brocade curtains, spare but not stark artwork, and plaintive female pop singers wafting through the room tempting you into a lingering mood. The staff is also spare with three (chef, server, dishwasher) one night and six the next. However, we never felt neglected with the impeccable but unobtrusive service and perfect timing on dishes to the table. I highly recommend engaging the server over your wine selections, either by the glass or the bottle. She did a great job with her pairings from a short but well constructed wine list that she helped develop. While the server was very helpful, she was a bit reserved, which might give the impression of aloofness.
The California cuisine menu is equally spare with seven starters ($7 to $13), six entrées ($17 to $24), and four desserts ($6.50 to $7.50) with a mixture of comfort food and very unique ingredients (steelhead salmon, smoked trout, blood oranges, watermelon radishes). Over the course of two visits with a number of friends, we tried every dish but one starter. All were an excellent balance of flavors, textures and seasonal ingredients. The clams and mussels in saffron broth with Merguez sausage and harissa cream ($9) provoked the same reaction both nights, everybody ripping off hunks of the fresh baked bread (crispy and reminiscent of something your find in the French countryside) to attack the broth. It was a classic Provençal sauce, according to the server, but had been boiled down so it was unusually thick and savory with no flour necessary to thicken it. Luckily for the person ordering the dish, there was plenty of broth. The clams and mussels were not overcooked and the sausage added a nice piquant burst of flavor. The salad of grilled Fuyu persimmons with arugula, pomegranate seeds, sweet-toasted walnuts, Cypress Grove goat cheese, and pomegranate vinaigrette ($8.75) looked on paper like it could be a jumbled mess, but the flavors and textures melded well. A split of 2000 Gregory Graham, Carneros, Pinot Noir ($18), with its black cherry and slight smoky aroma, paired well with the starters, which also included a bountiful plate of luscious, perfectly cooked scallops ($13) and smoked trout bruschetta ($9) with Romesco and chipotle sauces.
The roasted butternut squash ravioli entrée with hazelnut-brown butter and wilted spinach ($17) had bright rich flavors, and a very good filling-to-pasta ratio. This sauce also got the bread sopping treatment, so the dish ended up looking quite clean. Muscovy duck leg with balsamic vinegar sauce, Brussels sprouts, smoked bacon, and creamy polenta ($19) had nicely crispy skin and rich deep smoky flavors. The duck's crispy skin, while moist without being greasy, was reminiscent of a perfectly cooked duck confit, which is a little tricky to get right. The balsamic sauce was heavenly and nicely contrasted the polenta. The leg of lamb ($23) was like a tour of the Mediterranean, with all the best flavors of Greece on one plate. The olive tapenade, the hummus, the Jerusalem artichokes, roasted eggplant, and the lemon beurre blanc all complemented the pink, perfectly done lamb slices. The sautéed Steelhead salmon ($22) resting on a bed of blood oranges, braised endive, frisée, applewood bacon, and a citrus aïoli was layered well with flavor. While this is a standard dish in many upscale restaurants, it was also perfectly cooked; crispy, yet moist. There were a lot of wines ordered with the entrées but the 1999 Elliott, Napa, Cabernet Sauvignon ($10) paired well with the duck, and the 2002 Truchard, Napa, Pinot Noir ($10), with its medium body, earthy mushroom, and plum tones, complemented both the Niman Ranch pork chop ($24) and the Steelhead salmon. All the dishes had excellent presentation, they were visually appealing without being fussy or cluttered.
All the desserts were different from the typical restaurant fare and very good, prepared in-house. The blood orange cake with walnuts and orange-cranberry compote ($6.50) was dense and moist with a tangy citrusy flavor. The Scharffenberger bittersweet chocolate-huckleberry torte ($7) was silky smooth and rich. Order the twenty year old Tawny Port if you want something mellow but are too stuffed to eat another bite.
Wine Menu: A small and nice balance of domestic and imported wines, at affordable price points. The menu features wines by the glass, split, and full bottle. The dessert wines by the glass featured a nice mix of ports, madieras, and sweet wines. I would recommend you inquire about off-the-menu dessert wines, and again as your server to pair with your dessert.
Overall, Woodward’s Garden gets a highly recommended rating. It’s a great place for a salad, starter and a glass of wine for a quick meal after work or settling in for several hours to savor the many flavors and wines with friends.