Carla Meyer

Wildwood Kitchen & Bar masters art of design, on way to perfecting culinary arts

Wildwood Kitchen & Bar's field greens salad embodies a zippy lightness with its red onion slivers, carrot shavings and an assertive grain-mustard vinaigrette. It goes for $5.95.
Wildwood Kitchen & Bar's field greens salad embodies a zippy lightness with its red onion slivers, carrot shavings and an assertive grain-mustard vinaigrette. It goes for $5.95. mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

The elegant, beautifully lit Wildwood Kitchen & Bar looks every cent of the $2 million-plus its owners, the Haines brothers, put into it. Though its food and pricing are a step above what the Haineses offer at their 33rd Street Bistro and Riverside Clubhouse, that step is not so high that regulars from the other places would trip on it.

Since they opened 33rd Street Bistro two decades ago, Fred and Matt Haines have opened several other restaurants, including Bistro 33s in Davis and El Dorado Hills, and built a reputation for offering filling, better-than-average food in attractive settings.

This reputation is very, very Paragary. But before they opened Wildwood four months ago in the upscale Pavilions shopping center on Fair Oaks Boulevard, the brothers lacked a showplace akin to Randy Paragary’s downtown Esquire Grill, or his namesake midtown restaurant.

Visually, Wildwood is an unqualified success. Architect Jim Bob Kaufmann and designer Bruce Benning shaped three retail spaces into a restaurant that holds 120 seats – spread among the central, rectangular bar, side booths and high-top tables – while allowing plenty of room to move.

Wildwood draws well-dressed people who range in age from early 30s to seniors, and a design likely to appeal to all demographics. There is something interesting to see wherever you look, whether it is a wall covered in a mirror and ropes or one covered in mountain-face-esque granite. Plentiful wood, from floors to pillars, and orange/tan leather banquettes lend the place a warmth, and asymmetrical chair backs a modernist touch.

A multibranched metal sculpture and lighting fixture by Petaluma artist Matt Devine hangs from the ceiling and gives the restaurant a holiday-esque glow all year long. The walls hold works by Sacramento painter Mark Bowles.

The lighting is museum-quality throughout, whether illuminating paintings or the space between the mirrors and rope. In warmer months, when the glass garage doors leading to the 120-seat patio are lifted, streaks of sunlight follow and lend the dimly lit interior a cinematic quality.

Wildwood’s self-styled catchphrase, written on its menu, is “Where the culinary arts meet the art of design.” This sounds a bit pretentious, but nothing at the restaurant plays that way. Wildwood offers the same immediately welcoming quality as Riverside and 33rd Street Bistro do. Maybe it is feng shui, or an extension of the Haines brothers’ famously down-to-earth personalities, or the smell of woodsmoke Wildwood shares with 33rd Street – this time from a rotisserie rather than a pizza oven.

Wildwood’s food also is a success, though a more qualified one. But let’s start with the standout dishes created by Fred Haines – executive chef for the brothers’ ventures – and chef de cuisine Robert Phillips. The Haines brothers brought in Phillips, previously of the Pear Southern bistro in Napa, to execute their vision of a higher-end menu than those at the bistros and Riverside. One with terms like “soubise” (an onion sauce) and items smoked, cured or preserved in-house.

Like the tasty and not overly smoky smoked salmon that is one of the players rotating on and off the house charcuterie plate ($19.95), which always holds three meats, three cheeses and comes with an endless supply of butter-drenched crostini (for aesthetic reasons, five come with the plate, but you can ask for more). Our favorite meat was Phillips’ fat-laden yet light-tasting duck prosciutto, offered a few months back.

Feta and harissa chili spark fresh-tasting hummus in a $12.95 starter that comes with expertly salted naan baked in Wildwood’s tandoori oven. The excellent, $8.95 roasted-winter-vegetable appetizer holds creamy delicata squash and slightly firmer Nantes carrots, both spiced by cinnamon and lent earthy depth by the smoked baba ganoush on which they sit.

For a fresh, inexpensive palate cleanser, try the $5.95 field greens salad, with red onion slivers, carrot shavings and an assertive grain-mustard vinaigrette. In its simplicity and zip, this salad announces things will be different here than at 33rd Street, where heavy salads such as the Oregon bleu cheese with Buffalo chicken are delicious but are more like nap-starters than palate-cleansers.

The texturally intriguing $7.95 apple tarte tatin dessert – part squish, part glassy caramelization – comes with a scoop of house-made buttermilk ice cream that adds creaminess along with sweetness-offsetting acidity. The butterscotch budino ($6.95) is the best butterscotch pudding I have had, with bonus dots of delicious caramel coffee sauce and candied pecan.

Having never had a bad burger from 33rd Street or the Haines brothers’ midtown fast-food place Suzie Burger, I was not surprised by the high quality of Wildwood’s burger ($14.95, with fries). A hearty, perfectly seasoned brisket/chuck patty arrives on a well-toasted brioche bun, tanged by Wisconsin cheddar and brightened by a house sauce highlighted by yellow mustard.

We did not like the spaghetti carbonara. The pasta tasted under-seasoned and slightly overcooked, the egg was not discernible, and pork jowl offered fat but no flavor beyond salt. This dish’s $19.95 price tag seemed high even before considering Biba’s infinitely better spaghetti alla carbonara costs $18.

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Other Wildwood dishes are enjoyable, but with an asterisk, because some small element seemed to go askew. Most of these issues appear so easily fixable that they likely reflect the restaurant’s youth instead of some fundamental flaw.

I must report with regret that the short-rib raviolo starter ($12.95), my No. 8 pick on my top-10 dishes list for 2016, was not as good the second time I tried it. The short rib was chopped up into too-small pieces this time, and was not as flavorful.

But the bordelaise sauce made with demi glace and trimmings from Wildwood’s New York and rib-eye steaks was as salty-fatty delightful as the first time, and the herbaceous pistou as sharply on point. So I stand behind the raviolo, just as I will recommend the lunchtime open-faced New York steak sandwich ($16.95) despite the misleading listing of “creamed spinach” as an ingredient.

Having turned my internal calendar back to 1953 upon seeing this description, I was disappointed to see, once the sandwich arrived, a newfangled, bright-green spinach puree whose grana padano and cream components were not visible. But I did pick up their taste, and the spinach purée was delicious regardless of any bait and switch. Plus, the steak was tender and the brioche bread full of luscious butter.

We doubled down by ordering the smoked New York steak entree ($34.95) for dinner, with the meat carrying that same understated smoky taste from the sandwich, plus a salty kick from bone-marrow butter slathered atop it. But the accompanying puréed potatoes and persimmon soubise held the consistency of baby food. This particular baby food happened to be delicious, but I still had to fight the urge to flick it, by spoon, at my fellow patrons.

Puréed potatoes also appear with the rotisserie chicken entree. Though the skin was nicely crisped and the meat tender throughout, $22.95 seems like too much to pay for half a chicken, potatoes and carrots.

Prices in general are higher at Wildwood than at 33rd Street, with entrees at the former topping out at $35 compared with $26 at the latter. But they are never outrageous.

Wines by the glass, drawn from a list of mostly California and Pacific Northwest selections chosen by Wildwood general manager and sommelier Marc Jensen, generally run $9 to $11 a glass. Cocktails range from $10 to $13. A bracing Sazerac at the top of that range was worth the cost, as was a glass of spicy yet smooth 15-year-old Redbreast whiskey – one of more than 50 whiskeys Wildwood sells by the glass.

Though the booths along Wildwood’s walls are nice, I prefer the bar, where back-lit whiskey bottles create an amber glow and bartenders are highly informed about wine, spirits and food. Though service is good everywhere at Wildwood, it’s best at the bar. Also, I liked Wildwood’s starters, burger and steak sandwich – items meant to be eaten at a bar – better than its fancier entrees.

Recognizing my personal bar-centricity at Wildwood is interesting, given how the knock on the Riverside and 33rd Street over the years has been that they serve “bar food.” But Wildwood’s duck prosciutto, bordelaise sauce and smoked baba ganoush would never share space with Beer Nuts on any bar’s table-top menu. It’s delicious food that happens to taste even better when sitting at a lovely bar.

Wildwood Kitchen & Bar

556 Pavilions Lane, Sacramento. 916-922-2858, wildwoodpavilions.com

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday and Monday. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday. 11:30 a.m.-midnight Friday and Saturday

Beverage options: Full bar. International list of whiskeys by the glass. Mixed drinks by the pitcher. Compact yet diverse list of wines by the bottle and glass.

Vegetarian friendly: Yes

Gluten-free options: Yes

Noise levels: Mostly moderate, though volume levels rise noticeably when the place is full.

Ambiance: Works by local artists enhance a decor that’s modern yet warm, with asymmetrical angles softened by plentiful wood and leather and artful lighting throughout. The crowd is well-dressed and convivial.

Overall

The place is gorgeous and welcoming. Though much of the food is delicious, some dishes could use tweaks.

Food

We loved the burger, soup, field-greens salad, butterscotch budino dessert and liked the rotisserie chicken entree but it was priced a bit high. The spaghetti carbonara was a misfire.

Service  1/2

Service was perfect apart from a lunch visit during which all the many dishes we ordered came at once. Except the soup, delivered a few moments later.

Value  1/2

This is a higher-end spot than the Haines brothers’ Riverside Clubhouse and 33rd Street Bistro and its offshoots, and its prices reflect this without being outrageous. But the $19.95 spaghetti carbonara and $22.95 rotisserie chicken entree seem overpriced, especially compared with highly reasonable dessert prices on the same menu.

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