New Woodlake Tavern is just the beginning for restaurateurs
By Greg Sabin
The corner of Del Paso Boulevard and Arden Way has been something of a standout in culinary circles over the past few decades. It’s an unlikely location for some of the area’s best restaurants. Perched on a busy intersection without much glitz or glamour, the great restaurants on this corner have always been seen as the anchors for Del Paso Boulevard’s “comeback.”
In the ’90s, the space on the corner housed Enotria, a restaurant with one of California’s best wine collections and one of the area’s most sophisticated kitchens. After a dozen years of limited success, Enotria rebranded itself as an outpost of molecular gastronomy under chef Pajo Bruich. Despite the rave reviews and buzz, the concept failed and Enotria shuttered.
Next to take a swipe at the corner was a short-lived establishment called Cask & Barrel. The upscale barbecue joint and whiskey bar served some of the best fare in town. But before two years were up, Cask & Barrel was gone.
The current occupants, owners of Woodlake Tavern, are trying to learn from the previous tenants’ histories. And after tasting what they have to offer, I’d say their chances of making a go of it are above average.
Restaurateur couple Deneb Williams and Elizabeth Rose-Mandalou are veterans of the local scene: Williams was the executive chef at The Firehouse Restaurant, and Rose-Mandalou worked at Ella Dining Room & Bar. They bring experience, confidence and optimism to the art-deco triangle on Del Paso and Arden. They have what I think is a winning combination: stellar execution in the kitchen, confident, casual service and reasonable prices.
The menu carries on the tradition of Cask & Barrel, featuring beautifully executed barbecue dishes, but strays from the previous occupant’s model by bringing the dishes down to ground level, keeping them simple and reasonably priced.
Unlike Cask & Barrel, barbecue makes up only a portion of the menu.
Outside of house-made smoked sausage, 22-hour brisket, heavenly ribs and smoked chicken, the menu offers seasonal pasta, seasonal risotto (at this writing, a gorgeous spring combo of asparagus, spinach and English peas) and a killer burger the size of a football helmet.
Each dish is crafted with care and skill. The English peas in a petite plate of gnocchi are perfectly al dente and flavorful as all get out. The dead-simple macaroni and cheese hits every note you want from a cheesy mac without the fussiness of extra ingredients thrown in just for the sake of standing out. It’s obvious that executive chef Matthew Stauss is a capable hand in the kitchen.
On the business end of things, Williams and Rose-Mandalou have created an accessible menu, both in price and flavor. Only one dish, a 16-ounce rib-eye, costs more than $20, and many hearty sides and small plates sit below the $10 line. Also, can’t-miss comfort foods like chicken pot pie, fried chicken sandwich (ridiculously good, by the way) and chicken wings make up a good portion of the tightly controlled menu.
The bar follows the same pattern, for the most part. Sure, there are high-end tipples on the top shelf, but most cocktails and wines by the glass are less than $10. Wednesday nights feature half-price wine specials. And the happy-hour menu is generous and a bargain all the way through.
The standout deal, however, is Woodlake Tavern’s Sunday supper. At $18 a head, featuring your choice of meats and sides served family style, it’s a steal.
Most restaurateurs would be busy enough opening one restaurant, but Williams and Rose-Mandalou are planning to open three before the year is done.
Next door to Woodlake Tavern is their second enterprise, Uptown Pizza. Open only a few months, the pizzeria offers a lovely selection of expertly made pies along with panini, house-made pastas and adult beverages. (Uptown deserves applause for stocking bottles of Rainer beer.) A third fine-dining restaurant, Allora, will take over the former home of Rust Florist at Folsom Boulevard and 53rd Street.
If the pair can maintain their stamina, they’ll have a trio of highly anticipated restaurants to run. But if the skill with which they’ve put together Woodlake Tavern speaks to their talents, I wouldn’t put it past them to pull this thing off.
Greg Sabin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org