In the Best Hands
The storied legacy lives on at The Wolf with the Woods in charge.
Rich and Rebekah Wood have done an amazing job with The Wolf.
Photos by Lori Eanes
We knew we were in good hands when the host told us our Open Table reservation showed up on The Wolf computer for the following Monday night, but after a flurry of taps on the iPad on his podium, he informed us that he’d switched the reservation and could seat us right away.
“In good hands.” It’s what Allstate says you’ll be in if you trust them with your insurance needs. “Trust.” It’s in short supply these days, from the highest levels of government down to the dining scene, where restaurants are strategizing ways to require customers to honor their reservations. Two dinner visits with Robin and one solo lunch were enough to convince me that trusting your meal to owner/operators Rich and Rebekah Wood, executive chef Yang Peng, pastry chef Katherine Toy, and the skillful Wolf staff is a better bet than trusting your car to the man who wears the star.
I’d be surprised if, even in the ongoing flurry of local eatery openings, any establishment eclipses The Wolf as the best new East Bay restaurant of 2017. Certainly, few could arrive with higher expectations, given the dual legacies The Wolf was charged with maintaining. But the Woods and crew have perfectly melded the rustic modernism and new American cuisine of their tremendously popular, 10-year-old Wood Tavern and the more formal and pioneering Chez Panisse-style farm-to-table California cuisine of Bay Wolf.
It helped that when the latter’s Michael Wild decided to retire in 2015, after 40 years in business, he bequeathed the new owners the sturdy bones of a stand-alone Craftsman house on Piedmont Avenue and an immeasurable cache of good will. The Woods remodeled the basic structure, keeping the iconic enclosed and heated porch, and spiffing it up with warm wood paneling and a stylish box ceiling; making a capacious white-marble bar the centerpiece of the main dining room, with views into the kitchen; creating a more contemporary feel with sleek bare-wood tables and floors, and updated lighting and chairs; and adding slight throwback contrasts with dark, muted green wainscoting that meets the airy windows and pale, cloudy-treated walls in the interior rooms.
Olive-oil poached tombo tuna.
We were seated that first night in the parlor-like side dining room. There was just one other party at the other end, but the clatter was already unbearable. We asked to be moved to the porch, and that was a good decision. The space feels less “outside” and more integrated with the dining room than before, and even as it filled up with happy diners and cheery conversations (and one crying baby), Robin and I could talk quietly and hear each other. The experience continued to ascend from there, starting with a couple of beautifully balanced house cocktails—the rye-forward A Close Friend and the chartreuse- and sage-accented Wolf Daiquiri—a menu featuring five of my favorite words, “Acme bread available upon request,” and one spectacular starter of olive oil-poached tombo tuna arranged in an arc on a custom ceramic plate with large butter beans, watermelon radish slices, mizuna leaves, and salsa verde. Not that the other starter, asparagus and wild arugula salad, wasn’t stunning in its own right—bountiful and bright, radiating freshness, crunchy with quinoa, fennel, and almonds—but the alleged lead ingredient, young and soft-spoken, mustered barely a whisper against the chorus of spicy greens and lemon Parmesan vinaigrette.
With five main dishes on offer, I repressed my omnipresent hankering for pork (grilled loin, in this case), and resisted the promising richness of veal osso bucco and the healthy appeal of both Alaskan black cod and heirloom carrot risotto. I ordered what I felt was mandatory, Maple Leaf Farms duck breast. Duck was Bay Wolf’s signature dish, and chef Yang rose to the challenge with a slew of thick, tender, fat-and-skin-rimmed slices of duck breast fanned atop creamy polenta and pool of citrus-sage pan jus, complemented with maitake mushrooms and broccolini. A glass of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir proved the perfect pairing. As I went to heaven, Robin went the way of good sense, and was rewarded with toothsome risotto that sang of the season with its medley of pea shoots, spring onions, hazelnuts, mint, Meyer lemon, and pecorino.
Alaskan baked cod aside the Well Played cocktail.
When I told our server she looked familiar, she confirmed that she, and four others, had worked at Bay Wolf and came back after the year-and-a-half hiatus. Another friendly face was a former dining room manager at Duende, underscoring the Woods’ savvy for staffing their operation with continuity, professionalism, and hospitality top of mind. Everyone, most dressed in white dress shirts and smart, long gray aprons, moved at a calm and reassuring pace, giving the place a surprisingly settled and centered feel, just two months in.
As we know, there is such a thing as being too rich. At our second dinner, that was the case with our starter of two toasts thickly slathered with duck liver paté and specked with red peppercorns: They could have fed four. Still, we polished them off, and followed them with a wondrous chilled pea and mint soup; a huge bowl of Brussels sprouts fried with sweet Calabrian chili sauce and lemon, and dusted with Parmesan; the aforementioned veal osso bucco, also immensely unctuous and rich, and made as visually dramatic as the mountain in Close Encounters of the Third Kind by a towering centerpiece bone, marrow intact, green splashes of spinach and salsa verde, and cushion-shaped cippolini onions; and a dessert of apple hand pies—two little, samosa-like pastry pockets on a black ceramic plate smeared with crème fraîche.
The Wolf updated the enclosed, heated porch of its predecessor and spiffed up the interior.
Because I’m a glutton for, well, gluttony, I did return for lunch on a weekday. I was ushered by the hostess to “the best seat in the house,” at corner of the bar, where I could see everything that was going on, including chef Yang chatting up a regular who was sipping a martini and digging into a gooey croque monsieur, Rebekah Wood greeting Farmstead Cheeses & Wine proprietor Jeff Diamond (who tried to out me as an “important restaurant critic”—alternative fact!), another solo diner chomping on a huge duck banh mi sandwich (can you say, “duck, every which way”?), and craftsmen installing soundproofing materials in the side dining room (hurrah!). The bartender set me up with silverware and a Chilewich placemat, gave me a taste, and then a generous pour, of a dry 2014 Sancerre rouge that paired exquisitely with the crispy chicken leg confit in a light pancetta-white bean ragout. A $30 lunch is an indulgence, for sure, but I felt I was in the best hands money could afford.
American. 3853 Piedmont Ave., Oakland, 510-879-7953. Starters $3-$15, soups and salads $10-$11, sandwiches $16-$18, main courses $17-$36, sides $8-$9, desserts $7-$9, house cocktails $12, beer $6-$9, wine by the glass $8-$18, by the bottle $33-$140. Serves lunch Mon.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., dinner Mon.-Thu. 5:30-10 p.m., Fri. 5:30-10:30 p.m., Sat. 5-10:30 p.m., Sun. 5-9 p.m., TheWolfOakland.com. CC G☎ $$$–$$$$
Published online on May 12, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.