An Escape to Wood Tavern

Wood tavern must be one of the best restaurants around the proximity of Berkeley.  While there are a handful of affordable eateries and high-end restaurants like Chez Panisse that serve delicious food, Wood Tavern makes me feel like I’m eating at a fine dining restaurant without the heavy price tag.

I decided to come here on a Thursday evening with my friend whom I haven’t seen in over a year. The restaurant exudes a toasty warmth and coziness, the perfect place to catch up on life over delicious food.  I’ve always had my eye on this restaurant ever since my first year in Berkeley, passing by the people packed place as I visited the shops around Claremont, but never got a chance to visit until my fourth year.  Playing it safe, I called around 2 pm to make a reservation for that night, and fortunately took one of their two remaining last spots for 8:15.  We hopped over around 7:45 to try to get seated earlier, but unfortunately stood around until the reservation time because it was so packed.

Upon entering, I was greeted by a full house of customers slowly enjoying their food while tipping back glasses of sweet red wines selected from the racks of alcohol shelved against both walls.  The chatter was lively, flowing lightly from bar to tables, wrapping around the restaurant like music with multiple variations.

After being seated in a slim table for two tightly packed to the other tables, I already knew this table wouldn’t hold everything I wanted to order!  I restrained myself from asking one of everything and picked my cravings of the day: Whiskey Laced Chicken Liver Pâté, Roasted Beef Bone Marrow, Pan Roasted Half Chicken, Seared Maple Leaf Duck Breast, and Triple Layer Chocolate Mousse.

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We started off with their specialty cocktail, Badass Side Car, mostly because of the name but also because it contained my favorite dark alcohol, Hennessy VSOP.  The cocktail was sweet, rimmed with salt, and definitely had a healthy dose of Hennessy cognac.  Badass Side Car definitely lives up to its name, badass indeed.

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The starter, chicken liver pâté, was heavenly.  I’m used to pâté served as a slice or in a scatola, but Wood Tavern’s version came as a generous fluffy dab alongside date jam and small slices of toasted bread.  Unlike the heavier paste texture of traditional pâté, this one had the consistency of airy mousse.  The texture was extremely smooth and the whiskey brought out the meaty flavor of the chicken liver.  When I thought that the pâté couldn’t taste any better, I was taken aback by how well the date jam complemented the pâté with my next slice of bread.  The light, subtle sweetness highlighted the rich fats of the pâté, and the combination was so well balanced that I tried to draw out my appetizer for as long as possible, spreading only thin layers across increasing orders of warm crunchy toast.

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The bone marrow, a soft spot of mine and one of the many deciding factors into coming here, arrived promptly after.  A generous bone cut in half to reveal the soft, gelatinous thickness inside sat on a bed of rich porcini mushroom Madeira sauce.  The traditional French sauce is intense in flavor, speaking softly of sweet Madeira wine and succulent tones of creamy butter.  Pillowy brioche complemented the dish, which was perfect for drenching in sauce alongside mouthfuls of soft bone marrow.  The combination of the melt-in-your-mouth marrow, peppery sauce, and toasty bread was heavenly.  Halfway through, I decided to add the marrow and sauce to the pâté and date jam on my bread, and the result was…oh lawdyy. My oh my oh my. I think it nearly gave him a O (no pun intended), and by O, I meant his mouth was open in awe. Like  ‘oh my godddd I’ve never tasted anything like this’. I think his taste palate has been touched in places never touched before. The best thing about the dish was that there was plenty of sauce to go around.  The two halves of the bone were also perfect to share between two people.

After the waiters cleared the table, I thought I’d get the chance to rest a little from the fullness after loading myself with heaps of carbs, but our seconds arrived soon after.

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The pan roasted chicken, boneless minus the drumstick, sat in the center of a moat of sauce and grilled fingerling potatoes, nutty radicchio, spinach, and garlic confit.  The chicken skin was fried to perfection, slightly crisp but not overly so.  I expected the white meat to be a bit smoother, but it was still too dry for my taste.  However, the delicious lemon-rosemary sauce helped to moisten the meat a bit, and my friend swiped sauce onto every bite.  The garlic was cooked slowly, so that the strong stench and sharp taste all but disappeared, leaving behind soft, golden, mushy goodness.  No worries of garlic breath after finishing this!

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The seasonal seared maple leaf duck breast has to be one of the best on the menu.  Cooked to a medium softness that is still supple in texture, the duck was perfect.  Four thick pieces of meat rest on top of creamy parmesan polenta and roasted baby root vegetables, complemented by spiced pan sauce.  The duck’s slightly crispy skin contrasted nicely with the heartiness of the meat, and the lone searing process helped to seal in the natural taste and moisture of the duck.  I often have reservations about as to how good veggies can taste, but their slightly charred vegetables seasoned with just a sprinkle of salt was perfectly scrumptious on top of the savory polenta.  Scooped with a spoonful of spiced sauce, it was an upscale rendition of mashed potatoes and gravy.  I actually would have preferred potatoes because I love potatoes, but I think the cornmeal worked well because it was a subtle complement.

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Last came the triple layer chocolate mousse, a dessert I definitely recommend to replace their popular flourless chocolate cake, no longer available ever since they switched out their pastry chef.  The chocolate mousse is served with citrusy orange ganache, rich chocolate-almond meal cake, a small scoop of earl grey ice cream on the side, and fresh slices of mandarin segments.  The top layer of the mousse was slightly frothy while the bottom cake was heavy with dark chocolate flavor.  Juicy slices of mandarin lightened up the richness, while the ice cream carried subtle woodsy flavors.  Topped with a candied chocolate on top, the dessert was delish!  I assumed that the rather small scoop of ice cream is homemade, since their dessert menu also serves homemade ice cream and sorbet including flavors such as salted caramel (my favorite) and grapefruit.

My overall thoughts? I think I’ll be coming here a lot more often, but only as much as my wallet permits me to (the bill came out to be roughly $90 before tip).  I got what I paid for, and then some.  One thing is definitely sure though, I was extremely satisfied and will be coming back to try their other items.

Tips:

  • If ordering dishes such as bone marrow, chicken, or pork chop, let them know ahead of time because it takes longer to cook.  The waiters suggested that as well.
  • I recommend their entire Butcher Block for appetizer, but for those who want to try other starters, it may be a little overwhelming.  However, it would be perfect for happy hour with a bottle of wine if you’re not going for a lengthy meal.  The pâté is a favorite of many customers, so you definitely can’t go wrong.  They don’t serve a lot of bread with their pâté, but they’ll be happy to bring more if you ask!
  • For a table of two, if you decide to order a lot more than your table can hold, ask them to bring out your starters one by one so you can have time to enjoy the dish before starting the next.
  • Wooden Tavern has different menus for lunch, mid-afternoon, and dinner.  If coming for lunch, I highly recommend their hot pastrami sandwich with Swiss Emmentaler cheese or Niman Ranch Burger.

-Bernice

Wood Tavern
6317 College Avenue
Oakland, CA 94618

http://www.woodtavern.net

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