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Wood Tavern, Oakland

Wood Tavern

Wood Tavern in the Rockridge District of Oakland is the perfect neighborhood restaurant. I used to live right around the block from Wood Tavern back when they first opened in 2007. It was a tough reservation to get back then and it's still tough in 2010. Good for them. Michelin should make it down College Ave.

It's often a good decision to beat the crowds and come for lunch when a restaurant is this popular. Actually, I came to eat here two days in a row. I hadn't decided on the second day until I experienced the food and the service. The Cured Ham is always a little worried about 'the hype' surrounding a restaurant. But I have to remember not to confuse fad with fashion. A combination of great food and great service at any restaurant are always in fashion; and Wood Tavern is certainly in fashion.

I decided to eat at the bar both days. On my first visit I dined alone and on my second, a rare treat...Mom joined me for lunch. Two harsh critics on Day Two. On each occasion, I ordered a Drake's Brewing 1500 Pale Ale nitrogen beer. A fragrant ale, not bitter or crisp, rather mouth filling and luxuriant. And better yet, local.

I ordered two courses for my first visit; a pork belly appetizer and a main course pasta. I had every intention of ordering a burger after talking to my brother earlier that morning, but pork belly calls to me. I also had a rather lengthy conversation with the bartender about a couple of the dishes. He said, "come back tomorrow and order the burger. You'll be glad you ordered the belly today." He was right, I did like the belly and I ordered the burger on my second visit. 

One of my all time favorites, crispy pork belly. I probably ate pork belly a dozen times when I was in New Zealand. I don't know whether I caught a trend or just because it paired well with Pinot; all I know the pork was cooked properly by the Kiwi's. Wood Tavern served a deliciously crispy-top belly, not too fatty, and garnished with a poached egg and surrounded by lentils stewed with mirepoix and applewood smoked bacon. Praise for an often overlooked subtlety; the poached egg was patted completely dry before it was placed on top of the belly. There have been a few times when I was looking forward to hearing the crackle of the skin, the taste of crispy pork fat, only to be disappointed by some lunatic allowing wet garnish to desecrate the offering. The lentils and mirepoix that surrounded the pork offered a hint of smokiness from the bacon and a tease for what a great lentil soup would taste like.

On to my favorite mid-day meal, pasta. As you're probably used to reading, I'm particular about my pasta. Rigatoni with a spicy sugo of veal is today's pasta. The sauce is something I would expect from the Italian South, spicy. The meat has been well incorporated into the sauce and generally broken down cubes of meat. There is almost a grilled quality of flavor to the meat. I didn't ask about the general preparation, so the meat may have been seared on a grill or bacon could have been used in the base sauce. A bit of cheese grated over the top completed the dish. Rich, satisfying, spicy sauce. The pasta was well salted in the water and tossed through the sauce prior to service and cooked through to an American al dente. Overall a satisfying dish.  

Based upon my experience on day one, I returned for day two. As I mentioned, the next day I returned with a special guest, Mom. As with most Italian moms, she can be incredibly critical or blissfully complimentary. 

Mom ordered the surf and turf sandwich of prawns and prosciutto on a baguette complete with cucumber slaw and a Coke. She prefers Dr. Pepper but has become accustomed to restaurants not having DP on the menu. She used to take offense, as if there was some conspiracy against The Dr. She's more relaxed about it now and the 12 Step Program is working.

Presentation of the sandwich of prawns and prosciutto was colorful. When a sandwich looks good and not just a boring old sandwich that I paid $10 for, it makes a difference. Chef tried to make it look good. With the visual out of the way, it tasted good to Mom as well. The bread made the difference for her. All the bread is purchased next door at La Farine. The prawns were not overcooked and no stray shells were found. A simple, high quality sandwich.

Upon the recommendation of the bartender from day one, I ordered the Niman Ranch burger with bacon and cheddar cheese, complete with crispy fries topped with salt and parsley. Sides of dijon, ketchup, tomato, lettuce, and red onion, accompanied the burger. My patty was cooked medium rare and placed simply on a La Farine baguette. The fact that today's bartender suggested my burger be prepared medium-rare gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling. Nothing is worse than a charred hockey puck of a meat patty. In the interests of full disclosure, the baguette did not match up perfectly with the size of the meat patty. I know someone will write in and say, "I didn't get a hamburger bun". Be glad you don't get a hamburger bun. If you did, I would expect it will be a La Farine brioche bun. The burger was a two handed, wipe hands and face often quality American Burger. The French fry portion on the plate was enough to feed two normal sized humans.

Eating a burger and drinking a local beer at a neighborhood restaurant is expected. Sitting down to enjoy perfectly cooked pork belly at one of the best restaurants in the Bay Area is a treat. Wood Tavern has done a wonderful job of meeting expectations and then exceeding them. And that's why it's one of the Best of The Bay...not just the East Bay.



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