It's hard to stress how influential the cuisine of Northern California has been all over America. Emphasizing locally grown, fresh seasonal ingredients, cooks in San Francisco and its northern neighbors have taught the entire country to think about food differently in the last 20 years.
I was lucky 12 years ago to do my clinical training at a facility in the mountains of Sonoma County, the real capital of the culinary movement in that area. In fact, the facility where I worked had its own garden and gourmet cook. The food was considered essential to clients' well-being. I remember going into the garden there and eating squash blossoms off the vine and having a virtual catharsis of the palate. At markets all around Sonoma County, you could buy amazing produce, cheeses, wines and range-raised organic meat. The restaurants, of course, are legendary.
My training consisted of stints of a month there, then a month back here for classes, alternating for over two years. It was always a bit heartbreaking to return here when I went out to eat. Although Atlanta has had first-rate restaurants for a good 20 years, you found little approaching the philosophy of Northern California at the time. A notable exception was Chef's Cafe, Michael Tuohy's oddly placed restaurant in a budget motel on Piedmont Road. Tuohy's agenda, as a Californian, was explicitly to educate Atlantans in the culinary style of Sonoma County.
Chef's Cafe served the only brunch I've ever really liked. Serving the perfect post-coital or aphrodisiacal weekend meal, the Cafe, which closed years ago, was my favorite place to go with the, um, procession of people I loved a night at a time during those years. I was devastated when it closed and Tuohy began migrating from kitchen to kitchen around town. Though he left his mark wherever he went, his style always seemed compromised by those for whom he worked.
Now he's back with a new restaurant, Woodfire (1782 Cheshire Bridge Road, 404-347-9055). It's in the old Marra's location, which has never been my favorite building. Tuohy, opening on a shoestring budget in this economy, has done all the redesign work himself. Although the basic architecture, which is quite retro, has been left intact, he's added an open kitchen and redone the walls, painting them a deep gold here and paneling them with good wood there. There's a back patio, which will open in the fall, three private dining rooms and a bar out front. The restaurant did not have its pouring license last week, but you can expect a very good selection of wines, as well as cocktails, soon. Meanwhile, you're treated to a free glass of champagne.
As you pass from the bar area to the dining room, you walk by a display of bread and a glass-front cooler displaying artisan cheeses. The menu's accent of course is on the cuisine and style of Northern California and cooking with a woodfired oven and grill. Oddly, as welcome as this cuisine is, it has a slight feeling of a museum about it. What was so revolutionary a decade ago now feels almost classic.
The menu is a dream for a grazer. You can select from inexpensive tapas-style dishes, moderately priced small plates, woodfire pizzas, entrees and platters for sharing. Wayne and I did not have a single dish we disliked. We were excited to see fried squash blossoms stuffed with chevre -- a dish I can't get enough of in Italy. We liked Tuohy's but the breading is a bit heavier than ideal. They are served with sliced heirloom tomatoes and an aged sherry vinegar ($6).
Fresh white anchovies ($6), mild and juicy, are arranged in a lattice and served with fennel, lemon and olive oil. My favorite of the tapas, though, was a peach whose flavor was turned up to high volume by wood grilling, then anointed with fig balsamic vinegar and garnished with some fresh mint ($4). The menu changes daily but if you see this, don't fail to order it.
Of the smaller plates, I ordered a wood-roasted poblano pepper, stuffed with goat cheese, merguez and corn ($7). It sat in a pool of unusual and delicious mole made from yellow peppers. I'm not sure if it was intentional, but the chile was served quite tepid. I would prefer it served much warmer. Wayne ordered classic sopa de lima, chicken soup with lime juice, roasted tomatoes and avocado ($6). It was as good as any I've eaten in Mexico, with a very rich broth.
We'll return to sample a pizza. I was particularly intrigued by the one made with duck confit, caramelized onions, local figs and blue cheese ($15). Figs, being in glorious season and being among my favorite of God's creations, are in grand use on Tuohy's menu right now, including a duck breast grilled with them ($22). But I ordered the wood-grilled Niman Ranch pork chop ($21). I think it was one of the best pork chops I've eaten in memory. Tuohy marinates it ahead in a brine that keeps the meat from drying out with grilling. Grilled and a bit sweetly charred, it was served with cannelini beans cooked with pork and rapini full of whole cloves of sweet garlic.
Wayne ordered wild striped bass poached in olive oil -- a remarkable piece of fish with glistening silver skin and creamy flesh ($18). It was served with a German-like potato salad dressed with bacon-mustard vinaigrette.
For dessert, I returned to figs: a crostata of baby figs with creme fraiche ($6). And Wayne returned to peaches -- a bowl of fresh peaches with crisp pastry and vanilla ice cream ($6).
I think Woodfire is bound to be a hit with Midtown folks It's too early to give a definitive review of the place and I have no doubt Tuohy will be experimenting more as the restaurant hits its stride. Service, by the way, couldn't be better or more well educated -- a radical departure from the usual head-scratching waitrons one encounters everywhere in Midtown these days.
Six Feet Under Redux
Last week's review of Six Feet Under failed to mention Todd Semrau's partners in the venture. I received this e-mail from a friend of the restaurant: "Tad and Nancy Mitchell, along with the more established Todd Semrau, have separated themselves from the intown restaurant melange with Six Feet Under. Your food review speaks volumes, but their repeat business and quick popularity speaks even louder. They have a terrific bar atmosphere, they have a superb jukebox and they employ good people ... Good-looking people, for the most part, and that is a differentiator. These elements combine to offer a lot of staying power for this restaurant. By offering a rooftop deck, they launch even further into 'favorite local hangout' status.
"Nancy and Tad are super people. She read 50-plus cookbooks over the past year, offered free menu trials in her Grant Park home to her friends, and genuinely tested everything that they placed on the menu. Tad worked himself into a stupor, by supervising every detail of the startup. Their hard work will pay off, and is already paying off."
That being true, I've also received quite a number of e-mails complaining that visits to the restaurant turned up canned oysters served in recycled shells. When I checked it out, I found that has indeed been the case several times when the restaurant had difficulty with its supplier -- a problem that has since been rectified. But any restaurant -- especially one claiming to operate a raw bar -- should notify customers when it's not serving what its menu promises.
Leave Cliff Bostock a voice mail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.