Overpass Oasis

Woodward's Garden offers imaginative food and a respite from the noise and grit of its crossroads locale

I was not in a good mood. Someone had left my annual indulgence, a box of Teuscher champagne truffles, on the dryer, and they were soup. Not only that, I was headed for a restaurant at the corner of Mission and Duboce, where the streets are all tangled up like spaghetti and you can never make a left turn when you need to and it was cold and raining and the windows were all steamed up and — well, you get the picture.

My destination, it turns out, was located under a freeway overpass at a three-way intersection (Division being the third street), where Sears Point aspirants evidently come to practice gunning their engines and screeching their tires. Oh, swell: the smell of burning rubber as an appetite enhancer.

I walked in the door of Woodward's Garden a true beast. Two hours later, as I left what now seemed like an amusingly quirky location for a truly memorable rest-aurant, I was a positively radiant human being, one who had been delightful and engaging and, dare I say, more than a bit witty.

Huh? I guess it all started with the smell. Woodward's Garden smells like a restaurant on a cold rainy night should. Sort of roast chickeny, with a hint of garlic, potato and butter, a slight tang of vinegar holding the promise of sparkling fresh greens to come.

And for such a tiny place — nine tables and a couple of counter seats — the welcome was warm and gracious, not the frenzied shove into your seat or push into a cramped waiting area that often comes with a small dining room.

The frenzy at Woodward's Garden is in the open kitchen, where Margie Conard and Dana Tommasino, alumnae of Postrio and Green's, are stuffing those chickens, whipping those potatoes (more on that later), roasting that lamb sirloin and applying that lovely tangy vinaigrette to thoughtful plates like grilled pears, Stilton cheese and sweet roasted walnuts.

Now don't get all crazy and excited over these food descriptions because the menu changes weekly and some of our selections might not be available to you. It's a safe bet, however, these women will come up with equally delectable offerings.

For appetizers, my friend John pushed hard for the crabcakes with chipotle aioli, but I convinced him it was the chipotle aioli that seduced him. Okay, I was still a little bit grumpy. By promising to beg for a little dish of aioli, I got him off the crabcake jag, which was starting to get loud, and we were able to move on. It also helped that some yeasty bread with homemade onion chutney had arrived to quell that low blood-sugar condition that makes even the loveliest people a bit testy at times.

And so it was we found ourselves the happy recipients of swiss chard and lentil soup with cumin cr�me fra”che ($5.50) and smoked trout bruschetta with romesco sauce and arugula ($6.50). The soup was, we agreed, very satisfying, the purŽed swiss chard giving it smoothness, whole lentils lending texture, the hint of cumin supplying the jazz. But it was the smoked trout bruschetta that made us want to stand up and sing. Two large crostini were covered with a zesty, roasted red-pepper sauce, arugula and large, velvety slices of trout. Enough for one person as a light lunch, this should become the restaurant's signature dish.

For entrŽes, we chose the lamb sirloin with pearl onion and mushroom ragout, French green beans and garlic mashed potatoes with gravy ($16), as well as the beet-and-onion ravioli with browned chive butter ($13.50).

Let me say at the outset I was hesitant about the ravioli. It seemed a little New Agey, something my Italian mother-in-law, who calls her sublime homemade tomato sauce “gravy,” would laugh right out of her kitchen. I was pleasantly surprised by large house-made ravioli, more like mezzaluna, filled with a mixture of savory beets and onions and topped with parmesan bread crumbs. Not something I'd crave every day, but it worked.

As for the lamb sirloin, it was pink and tender, the French green beans crisp and delicate. Our real flareup — the crabcake thing had receded by now, thanks to all the taste treats and a delicious bottle of St. Supery merlot ($20) — erupted over the mashed potatoes, hinting of garlic and bathed in lamb gravy. I doled out a very small teaspoonful to John, who promptly declared them whipped and therefore inferior. Admittedly, my mashed potatoes, which I do with a hand ricer, have never been as smooth, but let me go on the record saying I don't care if they threw those potatoes out on Mission Street and let the racecar drivers pulverize them. They were divine.

Other entrees included roasted salmon with warm white beans, baby spinach and basil aioli ($15); saffron risotto with butternut squash, red peppers, fennel and Reggiano parmesan ($13.50); and stuffed roasted chicken with herbs and glazed root vegetables au jus ($14.50).

The two desserts we sampled — a Meyer lemon pot de cr�me with shortbread, and a chocolate sherry torte with whipped cream, both $5 — disappeared quickly.

Intellectual food fights aside, it was a grand evening. I highly recommend sitting in the short part of the L-shaped room, as the tables along the long wall seemed a bit too chummy. The other nice part of sitting there is that in order to really see the action in the kitchen, you had to stand up, which I did from time to time, especially during the potato “discussion.” As I mentioned, the two chefs are working feverishly all night long and I know it's a bit unfashionable to object, what with open kitchens the rule these days, but I'm not sure during a relaxing meal I need to see all that sweat and toil.

We'd spent the early part of the evening wondering about the restaurant's name, the garden concept being rather alien to the above-described location. A plaque on the side of the building revealed that in 1866, R.B. Woodward opened his gardens to the public as an amusement park occupying the entire block bounded by Mission, Duboce, Valencia and 14th. It remained a popular resort until its closure in 1892.

And a happy postscript: Melted truffles are just fine spooned over vanilla ice cream.

Woodward's Garden, 1700 Mission, S.F., 621-7122. Open Wed-Sun from 6 pm (last dinner seating 8:30 pm); no credit cards.

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