I'd decided long before my roommate and I arrived that we were gonna do the whole-table-inclusive 5-course chef's tasting menu. Luckily (for him, as I would've probably asked the kitchen for a trout to slap him with otherwise), my roommate agreed. The menu and wine pairings (which are chosen by the owner, and offered for a separate charge) for the tasting are based on the whims of the market and kitchen each day, so I can nearly guarantee that if you go, you won't have the same dinner that we did. And they won't tell you what dishes you'll be tasting beforehand -- every course is a surprise. (I would like to sign up for more surprises like these.) This is what ours wound up being:
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to report that the dinner started off a bit slow. A server was eager to take our drink order while we were waiting for our table in the comfortable lounge -- but our glasses of wine didn't actually show up until several minutes after we'd been seated, and bread didn't hit until after we'd ordered several minutes later, arriving (slightly chilled, so probably they weren't waiting for a batch to come out) along with our amuse. Perhaps they wanted the amuse to be the first thing we tasted? I wasn't running a timer, but the process of seating and ordering must've taken half an hour at the very least, which is awhile to wait when you're thirsty, hungry, and have a reservation. But that's my single complaint about the service -- for the rest of the evening, our waitress (and the entire fleet of other servers who were on hand) was warm and attentive, quick to explain, inform, and help.
But to the food! First out was an amuse bouche -- a black-eyed pea fritter with a spicy, creamy pickle dressing. Pure welcome and comfort. It was paired with a local sparkling wine that was a bit sweet for the dish, I thought, but the bubbles were just the thing for the light, crispy fritter. And luckily for wine-on-an-empty-stomach me, the vaguely belated bread basket contained a thick & chewy, lemon-zested, focaccia-type panbread; a darker, seeded peasant bread; and an addictively salted & herbed whipped butter. I could've filled up on the lemony one plus heavy schmears of butter alone, but I managed to abstain for the good of all of us.
The first full course was strips of battered & fried mushroom, slightly sweet, over a sharp & creamy cheese sauce with a drizzle of pungent candied garlic sauce. I found the fried mushroom a little oily after the first few bites, but it served well as a vehicle for the terrific sauces. I would have liked, in particular, to take home a vat of the cheese one. The wine pairing, an earthy Semillon, was perfect -- the sort of pairing that develops deeper flavors in both the wine and the dish.
Second course was seafood -- a roasted scallop and a few sweet, small shrimp, with a sprinkle of dill and a jewel-like salad of radish slices, cut paper-thin, and blood orange segments. My roommate, who dislikes seafood, cleaned the plate. I was less impressed with this dish than with all of the others; the scallop had a bit of grit to it, I wasn't entirely sure what the dill was doing besides mucking about, and the texture on both scallop and shrimp was more on the side of well-done than I personally prefer (I'm not sure how I feel about confit of shrimp). But the flavor of everything was good -- all very light and slightly sweet. (In retrospect, I think I would've wanted to have this before the fried mushrooms because the flavors in it were just so delicate.) The wine pairing, a Chenin Blanc, was another terrific match -- crisp and light with just enough sweetness.
Next came another taste from the kitchen, to cleanse and prep our palates for the heavier dishes ahead -- an oyster on the half-shell, dressed with a lobster cream and salt-cured salmon roe. And, okay, I never order raw oysters anywhere because, while I enjoy raw seafood, most places that serve raw oysters skeeze me right the hell out. But this was just (if you'll excuse me slipping into clichéd foodie hyperbole) ethereal. It didn't taste like shellfish -- it tasted like the ocean, salty, briny, and breezy. The cream played against this, pulling the flavor and mouthfeel into a richer, heavier place, and the roe balanced both out. And the wine pairing, a chardonnay, convinced a certain roommate who takes issue with the very existence of chards that the wine does indeed have a place in the world. In terms of wow factor and harmony of flavors, I'd say this was my favorite thing from the whole dinner.
Not to say that you should do something drastic like stop reading, 'cause next up, the third course, was a plate of little bitty quail quarters that I could've kept eating all night, served over a bed of stewed, creamy-textured potatoes and chewy mushrooms and circled with a salty chicken jus. I love game bird, and this was perhaps the best quail I've ever had, salty-sweet-crisp-tender all at once. Salty & sweet from the glaze over the crisp outer crust, with tender meat underneath. If I am ever fabulously wealthy, I'm going to eat something very much like those quailbits in the way that the plebes eat chicken wings. This was the one wine pairing, however, that I didn't think complimented the dish well at all. On the sweet side, the pinot blend made the glaze on the birds go sour, and had no power to cut the fat in the meat and ragout. Both my roommate and I prefer drier wines, though, and even if we were biased, one pairing slip the whole night ain't shabby.
The fourth and main course was -- of course -- pork. Pork two ways, in fact -- a medallion of pork loin and a thick chunk of pork belly, accompanied by a pork rind-studded risotto, a spear of picklish endive, and a schmear of apple vinegar sauce. The smokiness and tenderness involved in both pieces of meat was absolutely pornographic -- like the best beef tenderloin and sirloin, but in pig flavor. And the wine pairing -- a smoky, rich Garnacha -- enhanced it to the point that my roommate and I stopped talking and conversed only in indecently happy noises while we savored this dish. If this is the style of pork belly treatment that Tom Colicchio found fault with in the Top Chef season finale, well, I'll take his lifetime allotment of it. I disliked the endive -- whatever it was braised in (more apple vinegar?) made it too sour and bitter for me, even next to the fatty meat. (My roommate didn't mind it though -- I think I dislike vinegar more than the average bear.) But that was minor, forgivable. Oh, that smokiness. I'm afraid I'm going to hold all future pork dishes up to that one, and find them all lacking.
In the afterglow, the fifth course arrived -- two different dessert dishes, each with its own wine pairing! My considerable sweet-tooth and I were incredibly pleased. First, I tasted the molten-chocolate-filled chocolate crepe that was served over a sort of mocha latte soup with little nibs of cocoa and a spoonful of whipped cream. The flavors were just what I wanted after that pork, deep and dark and bittersweet. I thought the texture of the crepe was off -- a little too thick and spongy -- and that the sauce was a bit too thin. But the flavors went wonderfully with the tawny port it was served with (which I squeed a little about when the waitress poured it for me -- tawny port is one of my most favorite things on the planet when it's sort of masculine and nutty, like dessert whiskey more than dessert wine, and this was one of those).
Then my roommate and I switched plates and I tried the second dessert -- a small vanilla cake served with meringue and apple bits. Which was, strangely, also exactly what I wanted after the pork, sweet and warming with just a tiny hint of tartness. My roommate wasn't impressed by this one (though he's not a fan of sweets in general and cooked apples in particular), but as a baker myself, I very much was. (I did think the apples could've been cooked a tad more and incorporated into the cake, which, by itself, was bland after so many aggressive courses. But.) The cake's dense, heavy crumb, contained by a deeply caramelized crust, is something I'm going to attempt to replicate. And the meringue -- the meringue was paradigm-shifting, for a person with paradigms about pastry. It was what meringe can be, should be -- pudding-thick and so fresh that it managed to be sticky and creamy at the same time, like the best-ever marshmallow fluff. (I need to make this meringue. I need to put it on icebox pies, make cookie sandwiches out of it, serve it between layers of fruit and ice cream. But, um, anyway.) The dish was served with a chilled Sauternes that provided a slightly tart contrast to all the sweetness, and both the dish and the wine helped bring out the fruitiness in the other.
Overall, was this dinner worth the price tag of $65 per person plus wine, with the final bill including gratuity being up above $200? Um. That's a hard thing to answer. It was a special event for two food geeks, and I can write a huge part of the price tag off as being part of the experience. But I wouldn't do something like that more than once every couple of years, and only for people who I like very, very much. And if I go back, I'll keep a few things in mind to minimize the expense.
- Plan ahead and make a reservation well in advance. Not that you'll have much choice, there. The rumor I heard was that business at Woodfire is up 200% since Gillespie appeared on Top Chef (and good for them).
- Do the 5-course chef's tasting. It's only maybe 10 bucks more expensive than two entrees plus shared appetizers and dessert would be. And if you think you dislike certain foods, this is the sort of place that might change your mind.
- As tempting as the wine and cocktail list may be, just order water while you're waiting for your table if you're planning on doing wine pairings with your meal.
- Totally do wine pairings with your meal. It's pricey, but part of the adventure.
- But unless you're some kind of superhuman (or perhaps French), do the half-glass wine pairings.
- And even then, have only one out of every two members of your party order the wine. The half pours are still generous, plenty enough for two people to each sip before, during, and after each course. (Plus, like our waitress said, they want you to remember your nice dinner. And they wound up serving us 8 wines, so, yes. Even over the course of 2 hours, that's a lot of wine.)
- I have no idea whether they'll consider your request, but try asking for a table downstairs, in the cozy area by the wood ovens -- and especially along the back wall of the area, at one of the two corner tables with cushioned bench seating. We randomly scored one of these, and it was just excessively comfortable. And good for chef-watching -- we had a clear view of everything going on around the ovens.
- Enjoy yourself thoroughly and post, equally thoroughly, on the Intarwebs about your experience. And send me a link. The more foodpr0n I have, the less tempted I'll be to spend all my paychecks this way.