In its first month, Oakland’s The Wolf is more concerned with the legacy of place than in forging a new identity. At this point, that approach to establishing a customer base is entirely understandable, if not very daring. Bay Wolf, its predecessor, left behind 40 years of hungry ghosts lingering in the hallways when it closed a year and a half ago. When Michael Wild shuttered Bay Wolf’s doors, Rebekah and Rich Wood — the husband-and-wife team behind Wood Tavern and Southie — decided to open a third restaurant in the former Craftsman-style house at the sleepier end of Piedmont Avenue.
The Wolf, though, has preserved more than the wooded front patio. Chef Yang Peng’s menu features duck, a classic that Bay Wolf used to serve, which is one of many echoes to the space’s illustrious past. The California-casual decor here tries to communicate an attitude of upscale calm, but an underlying anxiety of influence dominates the atmosphere. The waitstaff performed their duties — from greeting to serving to clearing — with an affability underlined by wariness. After all, it takes some bravery to launch a restaurant in this era of cantankerous social media gourmands.
Tucking into piles of freshly baked slices of Acme bread, we found comfort in imagining ourselves seated at a European cafe, where leisure and pastis are served to the idle rich. Shaved fennel, crunchy like celery but sweeter, was the tastiest bite in the wild arugula and asparagus salad ($10), its lemon-parmesan vinaigrette possibly the tangiest dressing on the West Coast. When asked how much of the apple would we taste in the creamy potato and green apple aoup ($10), our server replied, “A hint.” And she was right. The unfortunate color of the soup notwithstanding, that fruitiness, and the presence of chives and bacon lardons, added dimension to the potatoes’ natural starchy blandness.
As the tables emptied, the patio now only belonged to us. When the entrees materialized, both were problematic. The pan-fried rock cod sandwich ($17) had been cooked to a reptilian dryness, and its caper aioli was an afterthought smeared on a small patch of bun. The red cabbage slaw, had it been dressed, might have saved the day. (Yes, we should have ordered the $18 smoked duck breast sandwich instead. It passed us by and looked moist and vibrant, like a banh mi.) My sandwich expectations had been, perhaps, unreasonably high after having eaten so many excellent ones at both Southie and Wood Tavern.
And so we turned our hopes and attention toward the heirloom carrot risotto ($17). The multicolored carrots had been baked to bring out their sweet earthiness, but unfortunately, the risotto was underdone. The flavors were all there, but the execution was not.
One bright spot was a side of fried Brussels sprouts ($9). Their original greenness was cooked down to a delicious, crunchy brown color. Slivers of the Calabrian chilies had turned translucent as cranberries. Their sweetness counteracted the funky aftertaste that makes kids everywhere swear off Brussels sprouts for life.
Overall, pacing was the primary issue. The front of the house, with its fine hospitality, will encourage repeat visits from regulars in the neighborhood. But for a broader audience (and culinary accolades), the kitchen will need to find its rhythm and its own identity, apart from the familiar one associated with the name it has inherited.
The Wolf, 3853 Piedmont Ave, Oakland, 510-879-7953 or thewolfoakland.com