Thursday, October 20, 2011

First Bite PDX: The Woodsman Tavern

If that ineffable thing called "feel" is any indication, then the new Woodsman Tavern on SE 46th and Division is in for a good ride. I went with my friend DOR last night, and immediately on walking in got hit with plenty of good vibe. Dark wood paneling, exposed brick walls, white painted wood ceiling, lumberjack themed art on the walls (and flannel on the waiters!), and lights dimmed to a burnished glow all lend a cozy feel. You walk in with the bar stretching out right in front of you, dining areas to the left and right, and even with a full house and people waiting it wasn't too loud. After a quick hello to a few people I knew who were already dining, I gratefully wrapped my lips around a perfect rye Manhattan made by bartender Evan Zimmerman, who was a good get for Woodsman owner/Stumptown Coffee magnate Duane Sorenson.

Smart restaurants, when telling prospective diners there's going to be a wait, always overestimate the time. First it saves grief all around if the wait actually is that long, and if you seat someone sooner than they expect you're halfway to a happy customer before they've had a bite. In our case the estimated 45 wait was actually a much appreciated 30 minutes. We were seated at one of two taller two tops along the wall facing the bar. Not optimal seats, especially if you're someone above 6', as the shelf that juts out from the wall is uncomfortably close, not to mention plants hanging down in front of my face. A little manual adjust solved the foliage problem, but the shelf needs some more thought. We started with the much talked about Domestic Ham Plate ($18). It usually features three different artisan hams from around the U.S., but that night they were out of the Benton's ham. The prosciutto-like La Quercia from Norwalk, Iowa and the milder and saltier Johnston County ham from Smithfield, N.C. were both exceptional. We also had a plate of the Grilled Cauliflower ($9) sitting on a cauliflower purée and topped with thin sliced ham and a squeeze of lemon and sprinkling of pistachios. This really worked, the smoky tender cauliflower with the salty sweet ham a perfect pairing. We were washing down these first few bites with a bottle of the 2008 Palacio Bierzo "Petalos" which I was happy to see on their very reasonably priced wine list. There are a slew of great bottles to be had here for under-$40 on the Woodsman list.

After that promising start we ventured to the main events, in my case a beautifully tender and fatty Pork Loin with shell bean ragout and chili sauce ($26). Perfectly cooked, almost fork tender, dripping juice, and seasoned just right this was one of the best pork loin entrées I've had in a long, long time. DOR had the Skirt Steak with french fries and béarnaise butter ($21), the Woodsman version of the bistro classic steak frites. The steak itself was a bright red medium rare, but really could have used a blast of heat to crust the outside of the meat. It came off kind of limp and underwhelming. The fries suffered the same fate, being unexceptional, almost soggy and lacking texture inside and out. This was only opening day +2 for Woodsman, and with the rest of dinner going so well, I can only assume this is a kitchen finding its feet. We also ordered a bottle of Burle Gigondas, a personal favorite of both of ours, which I think is a steal on their list for $36 a pop. The best of the south of France, big and gutsy and versatile enough to work with almost anything (also if you're inclined check out this French video of winemaking at Burle. I have no idea what they're saying, but having been there and met Damien it's pretty cool to watch). Along with the main plates we ordered two sides, one a relatively uninspired dish of stewed green beans ($4), the other an absurdly delicious savory bread pudding ($6) that was studded with mushrooms and seemingly soaked in butter. Mushrooms, butter, and bread...a very dangerous combination when it's this good, because it is absolutely crave worthy.

We finished with a ginger cake which was fine. It may have been very good, actually, but after the indulgence we had prior it was probably an unneeded overkill. All in all I will definitely look forward to a return visit as there's a much more temptation to explore on the talented chef Jason Barwikowski's menu. Jason's kitchen, for being so new and getting hammered this night, kept up the pace and all of our food came out in a timely manner, which speaks very well of him and his crew and bodes well for future visits. The service was equally up to the task, and it was nice to see Duane watching over it all from the corner. He's a great guy, and if you get a chance to talk with him you'll get a warm welcome. The place was buzzing the whole time we were there, and it seems Duane is getting much love from the food community as Ben Dyer of Laurelhurst Market, David Anderson from Genoa, and Barista coffee owner Billy Wilson were among the throngs.