Grand Gestures 

Wood Tavern packs big flavors to go with its masculine vibe.

It's a small place with enormous buzz. Since early February, when Wood Tavern opened in the space that used to house Grasshopper, the restaurant has stoked the kind of curiosity that swirls around a particularly juicy Sunday open house. Curiosity hadn't dimmed six weeks later, when Doug Washington stood in the crowded space on the fringe of Rockridge, awaiting a table. The co-proprietor of the San Francisco restaurants Town Hall and Salt House squinted slightly at the bottles of liquor stacked up at the bar as if minutely studying the competition.

Washington has been rumored to have his eye on Oakland for eastward expansion. He could learn a lot from Wood Tavern, a place that expresses the spirit of its neighborhood with the prim, wood-trimmed outlines of a Craftsman house gone interior-designer mod. With a big-grained hickory floor and walls a light-to-dark gradient of forest-y green, it's a room wrapped in the woodsy semiotics of masculine comfort, shined up with a little varnish of urbanity.

So is the cooking, which piles up big tastes on plates with satisfying portions of skillfully cooked meats. Think of it as Zax Tavern without the slacks-and-dress-shirt vibe: a bit less polish but no less flavor.

Less polish can be a fine thing for a place with aspirations as a neighborhood hangout, so long as that neighborhood can handle entrées in the twenty-dollar range. Rebekah Wood says she and her husband, Rich, the owners, wanted a restaurant where locals could drop in for a burger and a Hefeweizen on a Saturday afternoon. And if there's one thing the Woods know, it's catering to a neighborhood. They cashed in Frascati, their Russian Hill trattoria with a fiercely loyal neighborhood following, to own a place closer to their home in the Oakland Hills.

On a recent Saturday, 45 minutes before the early rush, the Woods' vision had taken form at the bar. Couples crammed together on barstools in a dining room set with tables left empty for those with reservations, and filled up on burgers, pints, and a charcuterie plate called Butcher Block. Rich Wood was inspired by the gastropub, the British fusion of wine bar and fancy bistro. Wood Tavern is more casual, an urban bistro whose cooking glows with a bold palate of Italian flavors. "Frascati was our little girl," Rebekah Wood says. "This is our boy."

Take the Wicked Good Seafood Stew, a cioppino-like sauté that packed the spicy, porky wallop of linguica in a tomatoey broth crackling with Y-chromosome personality. It had creamy-fleshed mussels and Manila clams, fleshy rock shrimp, a big pinch of cold Dungeness crabmeat, and a few small pieces of halibut that'd been floured and pan-fried stiff. But it was the broth that radiated most of the character. The pastis-laced, fennel-studded broth — bound into a thin emulsion thanks to what seemed like a healthy lump of butter — could have stood on its own, as a chunky, satisfying soup surrounding dense wedges of red-skinned potato.

The chef, Max DiMare, favors big tastes over subtle ones. He cut his teeth at the Berkeley outpost of the Paragon, became a line cook at Scala's Bistro when Rich Wood was general manager of the big Union Square brasserie, and followed Wood to Frascati. In their move across the bay, the team's center of gravity has shifted to DiMare: The young chef's stocky palate defines Wood Tavern the way the husky taste of linguica defined that seafood stew.

Similarly big tastes suffused grilled flatiron steak, a fringe of thick meat slices doused in bacon-cashew vinaigrette. The smoldering persistence of Niman Ranch applewood-smoked bacon blotted out the meat's tang, although everything else — the pool of polenta with its agreeably grainy texture, and sweet first-of-the-season asparagus — was able to shine. A good dish, but after the first few bites the bacon's relentless background noise started to bug.

There was more subtlety in DiMare's pan-roasted half chicken, a bird entirely boneless except for the first wing joint. Pan-fried in a fierce amount of fat, it had deeply amber skin under a flocking of breadcrumbs that'd been browned separately and sprinkled on at the end — a trick to accentuate the sensation of dry, crunchy skin. Coarse-grained breast meat was salted all the way through, but it was the lemony, rosemary-flecked pan sauce that steered the dish from nice to wonderful. This was sauce perfection: the richness of deglazed pan juices with the satiny texture of butter emulsion. It washed at hunks of fingerling potatoes and artichoke hearts trimmed into halved trumpets, elevating both to fantastic.

DiMare's best dishes combine the kitchen's obvious technical skills with satisfying perfumes. Lemon and rosemary with the chicken, and with venison carpaccio, the menu's fanciest starter, it was the convergence of smoked salt and deliciously bitter lemon oil. On their own, the lovely, plum-colored sheets of raw venison loin had an elusive flavor. But tiny shards of coarse salt and a trickle of lemon oil unlocked a delicately gamey taste, as darkly woodsy as the fragrance of pine needles in a forest. The official garnish, a few homemade potato chips spooned with a little grilled eggplant compote, was unnecessary, even distracting.

That echoed the distraction that troubled another starter, chilled seared ahi tuna. The dish's delicious center was thick, lush slices of fish drenched in the cool, delicate wash of cucumber salsa. I would have been happy to stop there, but the tuna came poised on a pile of a Mediterranean-themed salad of artichoke hearts, roasted peppers, and green-fleshed Lucques olives. It was a bit too oily, and the strong flavors only marred the subtle impact of that delicious fusion of tuna and cucumber.

DiMare has big talent, and a tendency now and then to overload with the big gesture. His fresh rigatoni with lamb sugo, for instance, was a splendid convergence of thick, toothy pasta, stewy lamb fibers, and the fruity breath of genuine Parmigiano-Reggiano. But the chef scattered the dish with a coarse chop of leathery, oil-cured olives. Bitter and supersalty, they were just too much. So was the thin mat of salty prosciutto slices under a delicious, fluffy-textured, and wonderfully simple Dungeness crab salad interleaved with bits of radicchio and frisée.

Those jarring elements stand out only because the rest of DiMare's cooking is so sure. It has a generous quality that's an easy fit with the competent service. One night our waiter recommended the poached-pear streusel for dessert. It was topped with a ball of gorgeous, housemade crème caramel ice cream, but the pears under the crumbly topping tasted watery, and the topping itself didn't bake long enough to get, well, crumbly. Two of us didn't finish it. The waiter noticed, told us he felt responsible, and quietly crossed it off the bill.

When you're the new kid on the block, that's exactly how you make friends.

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