By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
It was a cool, foggy evening when we pulled into the parking lot at The Wood Café in Del Rey, and I was dismayed that every space was filled. I dropped off my wife to get a table, remarking that I hoped there was room inside where it was warm. When I returned my wife was seated outside.
“The server said it was warmer out here,” she explained. In fact it was, thanks to the fire pit built into the table, and the flickering flames added a note of style and romance to the meal.
Sophisticated experiences aren’t what you’d expect from the outside of this place, since it is quite obviously a remodeled burger stand. That’s not what is going on now – this is contemporary cooking with premium ingredients like grass-fed lamb, organic seasonal vegetables, and other boutique ingredients, and though the wine list is short, the bottles are very well chosen.
I had stopped in for lunch previously and sat on that same patio on a sunny day, and the feel of the place was very different. Then the rustic wooden benches and clean but stark patio had seemed more utilitarian, a pleasant place for a veggie burger and a side of turkey chili. The veggie burger was homemade and particularly good, while the turkey chili was robust with the right subtle heat, which was why we returned the next day. What had been planned as a quick dinner out turned into a more sophisticated evening, an unexpected bonus.
There was just enough light on the softly illuminated patio to read the menu, an interesting mix of updated traditional dishes. We hesitated over roasted cauliflower florets with hummus or flash-fried Brussels sprouts with goat cheese, but decided to start with chicken liver crostini and a duck and arugula salad with pomegranate seeds and citrus dressing. This turned out to be a perfect counterpoint of dishes – the chicken liver with rich blue cheese gravy, and the salad all bright, sharp flavors that cut through cheesey funk. I’m not usually a big fan of chicken livers but sometimes order them just to see if a chef can convert me – in this case, I was sold on them.
We paired the starters with a Blue Plate Chenin Blanc and Raptor Ridge Pinot Gris. The Raptor Ridge was the better sipping wine before the food arrived and was very good with the salad, but I found the Blue Plate superior with the bigger flavors of the crostini.
We continued with grass-fed rack of lamb brushed with chimichurri sauce with a side of sautéed kale and grilled wild king salmon with garlic caper sauce, spinach and roasted fingerling potatoes. The salmon was excellent, the firm flesh and rich flavor everything that I like about the wild fish. It’s incomparably superior to the mushy, insipid farmed stuff, and the mild garlic sauce enhanced the flavor nicely.
The roasted fingerlings were a bit saltier than I would have preferred, but alternating the spinach made them go down just fine. At $18 for a generous entrée this was modestly priced, and it’s worth a trip. The season is ending soon, so if you like fresh fish you should go and get this while it’s available.
The rack of lamb was a bargain too – four big, meaty chops grilled to a perfect medium-rare, and the kale in olive oil with garlic, basil, and oregano a perfect foil for the rich meatiness with a tang of spice. A little potato, root vegetable, or some other starch would have decorated the plate and finished the flavors, but that’s a minor quibble.
We paired these with a Hayden “The Fig” Pinot and a South Ridge Syrah – the latter a new addition to the menu recommended by our helpful server, Angela. The Syrah was particularly good with the lamb, the Pinot something I’d happily try with just about anything – there’s a reason this grape has been called the skeleton key to the human palate.
We finished with a very good croissant bread pudding and a pot de crème with house-made graham crackers. The graham crackers had been heavily dusted with powdered cocoa, which I thought was a mistake; they would have been better left to show off their own flavor as a counterpoint to the rich mousse.
We departed very happy, having spent $143 for an exceptional evening of fine food and excellent service. We could have easily spent much less, but we were seduced into a date night splurge by the incongruous atmosphere and adventurous menu. By day or by night, modest or luxurious menu, The Wood delivers.
The Wood is at 12000 Washington Blvd. in Del Rey – parking entrance from Inglewood Boulevard. Open Mo 9 a.m. – 4 p.m., Tu-Fr 9 a.m. – 10 p.m., Sa/Su 8 a.m. – 10 p.m. Beer and wine served, children welcome, wheelchair access OK. Website at thewoodcafe.com. 310-915-9663.