Wood is a restaurant that delivers more than it promises. The menu lists simple-sounding dishes composed of familiar ingredients, but the excitement starts when the dishes hit the table. The executive chef, Alinea alumnus Ashlee Aubin, abides by the local/seasonal/high-quality-ingredient credo that many chefs profess; he just does it a lot better than most.
The menu rotates with some frequency, but there are a few fixtures on which one can rely. It seems there are always scallops available, whether matched to truffled cabbage and pureed cauliflower (as I had them earlier this year), or the current iteration, in which three well-seared, split-top scallops sit over a lusty ragout of house-made Italian sausage, tomato, bell pepper, green beans and shelly beans — a perfect late-summer arrangement. Pork makes its way onto the menu a lot; I very much like the current presentation of thick pork slices on a bed of summer-corn niblets, themselves supported by shredded shoulder meat and a cherry-accented sauce; but I'd like it whole lot better if it were a smidge closer to medium-rare.
House-made focaccia is a $5 up charge that's well worth the investment. The bread is very good, tall and spongy as it should be, and the accompanying French butter, vivid-yellow in color and kissed with just the right bit of salt, is heavenly. I could keep myself content for at least a half-hour with this and a good glass of wine, which, incidentally, is easy to find here. A glass jar of foie gras mousse, capped with a thin layer of cognac gelee, is a shareable starter you might be disinclined to share.
Small-plate pastas are good bets, whether it's the tagliatelle with merguez sausage and nicoise olives (a menu staple) or spaghetti topped with peekytoe crabmeat and pickled onions (some pickled ghost peppers add a little zing without overwhelming the dish). There's also a fine saffron risotto with oxtail ragout, studded with more of those late-season shelly beans.
The chewy, asymmetric and puffy pizza (Aubin calls it a flatbread, mostly so customers don't expect mozzarella and tomato sauce) is topped with raclette cheese and Mornay sauce, dotted here and there with cooked bits of black kale and prosciutto-thin slices of country ham; this combination is predictably on the salty side, but it's not a deal-breaker. Barramundi, roasted in fresh grape leaves over a bed of orzo pasta (dotted with grapes, a cute touch) and a light shellfish nage, is a delicate dish in search of an assertive accent; this is not a problem with the chicken breast, served in slices with a jumble of mixed vegetables, fried potatoes and an appreciably peppery white sausage gravy. And the veggie-focused will love the mezze, a texturally varied platter of charred eggplant, labne, tabbouleh, falafel and black tahini.
Wood's desserts are few but mighty. I especially like the trifle, a layering of cake, blueberry jam, lemon curd, Chantilly cream and honey ice cream. And the richly satisfying chocolate fudge cake, which stretches dramatically across the plate, is flanked by black raspberry ice cream, black raspberry puree and creme fraiche.
Lakeview restaurants can be high-energy, constant-motion places, but Wood is a comparative no-wake zone, a low-lit, low-key hangout where you can get a proper cocktail (the dining-room-length bar suggests as much) and have a pleasant conversation. Things may change as the evening wanes; Wood's bar hours exceed my bedtime.
Wood doesn't serve lunch, but there is Sunday brunch, wink-nudgingly dubbed "Morning Wood," where you'll find such items as pork-belly benedict, apricot-mascarpone crepes and tarte flambe.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine" and on CLTV.
3335 N. Halsted St.
Tribune rating: 2 stars
Open: Dinner Monday-Sunday, brunch Sunday
Prices: Entrees $19-$25
Credit cards: A, DS, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Other: Wheelchair accessible
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory
The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.firstname.lastname@example.org