Woodlake Tavern opened in the old Enotria/Cask & Barrel building on Del Paso Boulevard in January 2017, but fatigue prevented me from visiting for several months.
This fatigue was related to the building’s renovations and remakes, and how it was really going to make it this time, because it had a talented chef, or Michelin-star aspirations, or offered terrific barbecue and beautifully crafted sides at inexpensive prices. And then it would not make it, despite rave reviews from me and others.
My weariness also derived from a personal, logistically based disinclination toward this property. If one drives from downtown on Route 160 and exits at Del Paso, getting to Woodlake Tavern on the other side of the broad boulevard requires one of the widest U-turns legal in California. (Or at least the sign indicated it was legal, Officer.)
Once you complete the big swing, parking can be a challenge. When the building held Cask & Barrel, the interior challenged as well. The operators ran a catering and events company out of the building, and only opened the bar area and front patio to patrons. A large side patio that is the place’s best feature was off-limits, as was the former Enotria dining room.
A visit to a restroom down the hall from the bar offered glimpses of the unavailable space and gave one a sense of the bar’s isolation. The bar’s decor, indifferent beyond white table cloths, did little on its own to inspire cozy feelings.
When I reviewed Cask & Barrel two years ago, the big swing, limited space and lack of ambiance seemed like fine tradeoffs for chef Gabriel Glasier’s wonderful food. But I did not visit again unless it was for professional reasons, mostly because of the place’s more awkward elements.
So why return now? We went back primarily because married Woodlake Tavern operators Deneb Williams and Elizabeth-Rose Mandalou bring with them too many credentials to ignore. Williams was the longtime executive chef at the Firehouse in Old Sacramento. Mandalou is a former Ella bartender who recently passed the advanced sommelier exam given by the Court of Master Sommeliers – a rare achievement among Sacramento restaurant professionals.
Williams and Mandalou use the whole Enotria space, including the interior patio. They have opened the fast-casual spot Uptown Pizza Kitchen (which is not part of this review) in the former Enotria dining room. The tavern sits in the bar area, like Cask & Barrel did, but the space has been transformed.
Williams and Mandalou also are planning to open an Italian seafood place called Allora this coming winter in the former Rust Florist building on Folsom Boulevard. Woodlake building owner David Hardie is their partner in all the ventures.
In addition to Williams and Mandalou suddenly becoming real players in the city’s restaurant scene, I had read positive comments about Woodlake from Facebook friends, and I, like most people, can be influenced by peer recommendations.
So I made the trip, and found a nicely spiffed-up spot where the blue velveteen of the banquettes teases out the blue in the vivid, geometric-patterned flooring. And I found a menu of upscale comfort food reminiscent of Cask & Barrel’s barbecue-based one, with more salad and sandwich options.
Some dishes are Williams’, some come from executive chef Joe Pruner (Empress, OBO’) and some are collaborations. Pruner is heading up all the kitchens in Williams’ and Mandalou’s fledgling restaurant group, with Williams serving as CEO and Mandalou as beverage director.
Let’s get the bad news about the food out of the way. Though Woodlake is less barbecue-centric than Cask & Barrel was, barbecue is still a marquee item, with a section of Woodlake’s menu devoted to meat cooked for hours in a pellet smoker. We gave these items a real shot, trying the ribs three times and the brisket twice, and always came away disappointed. The ribs and brisket always tasted overly chewy and dry, despite an excess of barbecue sauce on both.
The best parts of the $26 barbecue sampler plate were a crispy/pillowy cornmeal biscuit (the secret is keeping the butter ice-cold before baking, Williams said) and moist chicken that was mostly cooked sous vide.
But Williams and Pruner score elsewhere, starting with a generously portioned $7 mac ’n’ cheese side featuring perfectly cooked pasta within a slightly tangy, wonderfully smooth-textured roux with house-smoked white cheddar, American, fontina and cream cheeses.
Nobs of house-cured bacon added salty punch to the excellent $11 summer gnocchi. This dish combined burrata and tomato with Parisian (or milk dough, rather than potato) gnocchi that was firm but not dense.
To craft the highly satisfying, $5 warm potato salad, the kitchen crew cuts up and roasts Kennebec potatoes and throws the still-hot pieces into a bowl with bleu cheese and arugula. The potatoes’ heat turns the cheese appealingly gooey and softens the greens without diminishing their peppery snap.
Kennebec potatoes get sliced and put in a deep fryer of rendered beef fat to create the memorably crispy, improbably light-tasting $6 beef tallow fries. These fries, for which Williams installed a special beef-tallow deep fryer, are meant to evoke old-time McDonald’s fries that were cooked in the same fat.
The hearty, $2 brisket tacos Woodlake Tavern sells on Tuesdays hold beef seasoned with dried guajillo chilis, garlic and cumin and simmered an extra two hours post-smoker. The brisket is moist in this instance and emits just enough spiciness to offset the slight sweetness of its white-corn-tortilla hammock.
Some items at Woodlake were half successful, like a fried chicken sandwich ($14 with fries or salad) that mismatched juicy, well-seasoned thigh meat with a limp, forgettable bun. The $19 shrimp-and-grits dish held succulent, flavor-packed shrimp and under-seasoned grits.
Woodlake’s desserts were uniformly good and reasonably priced at $7 each. The standout was a bread pudding made from those delightful cornmeal biscuits, blackberries, stone fruit and creamy, sweet mascarpone.
Woodlake delivers on its “tavern” name with high-quality cocktails crafted by personable bartender Brett Walker, formerly of Shady Lady. The alcohol-forward yet frothy and refreshing “Herb Fizz” contains gin, genepy herbal liqueur and egg white and ranks up there with midtown’s best cocktails.
We realized after our final review visit that we never had ordered wine, despite the advanced sommelier on the premises. But we also noticed that cocktails get more emphasis here than the tavern’s compact wine list.
Mandalou – who collaborates with Walker on cocktails – said she discovered soon after the tavern opened that its patrons prefer booze and beer to wine, and subsequently trimmed the wine list.
She’s already planning a larger wine list for Allora, the menu for which also will reflect Williams’ fondness for, and expertise with, pastas and seafood. Can’t wait.
In the meantime, the significant talents of this fine-dining-trained pair have an outlet in a moderately priced Del Paso Boulevard spot that grew less and less off-putting the more I visited. It helped that I saw more people there than I ever did at Cask & Barrel.
The sense of bonhomie that comes from sitting in a busy restaurant, combined with the good food, drink and improved decor, made me feel comfortable enough to plan a return trip to the building to sample the pie at Uptown Pizza.
1431 Del Paso Blvd., Sacramento. 916-514-0405, www.woodlaketavern.com
Hours: 4-8 p.m. Sunday, 4-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 4-10 p.m. Friday, 5:30-10 p.m. Saturday
Beverage options: Full bar. Craft cocktails. Draft and bottled beers. Compact wine list.
Vegetarian friendly: Yes. There is even a vegetarian alternative to the beef-tallow fries
Gluten-free options: Yes
Noise levels: Moderate
Ambiance: New operators Deneb Williams and Elizabeth-Rose Mandalou have brightened up the space that once held Cask & Barrel with snazzy new seating and flooring. They also have reopened the building’s lovely side patio, always the most attractive part of the Enotria building.
The barbecue is not at the level of the barbecue served by the building’s previous occupant, Cask & Barrel. But many other menu items show great polish.
The mac ’n’ cheese, summer gnocchi and warm potato salad are standouts, as are chicken wings and a crisp Caesar salad lent the perfect degree of anchovy snap. The cornmeal biscuits are wonderful in their original form and in the bread pudding made from them.
Very attentive and efficient, if sometimes a bit over-enthusiastic. Some service staff members spoke of dishes and ambiance in such glowing terms that it did not leave enough room for us to form our own opinions (although I persevered on that front).
The barbecue sampler seemed pricey at $26, but that could be because the brisket and ribs disappointed. There are plenty of bargains to be found elsewhere, like $2 brisket tacos on Tuesdays and flavorful, thoughtful and substantial $7 desserts.