There’s something magical about Woodward’s Garden. The tiny restaurant is tucked underneath the freeway on an out of the way corner that seems slightly dark and sinister, but you are drawn to the red and glass entrance which merrily glows from the brightly lit and bustling kitchen just within the door. It is named after and located on the site of Woodward’s Amusement Park which was open during the period of 1865-1891 by wealthy hotel proprietor Robert B. Woodward on his four-acre country estate. It is hard to imagine this rather gritty urban spot was once filled with exotic animals, ornate fountains, lakes, and manicured gardens, along with an amusement park, museum, and outdoor theater. You can read more about it here.
Chef/owner Dana Tommasino earned a masters degree in literature from Mill’s college (aha that explains the literary bent of the chef’s blog) and is a graduate from the California Culinary Academy. I was greeted by the other owner Margie Conard as I walked into the front room which was filled with wondrous smells wafting from the kitchen, which takes up most of the front area. There is something almost steam punkish about the kitchen which is aglow with mysterious faerie lights. She led me down down a short hallway which included a couple of small tables tucked against the glass windows covered with sheer gauzy panels through which the lights from the traffic signals and freeway can be seen but not really noticed.
The main dining room is small with high ceilings and illuminated by a sparkling chandelier overhead and romantic sconces brighten the walls. There’s even a grand piano which adds to the charm, which is unabashedly retro shabby chic. I last dined here ten or fifteen years ago when the dining room was crammed into the front area with the kitchen, and found this to be a great improvement – spacious and comfortable.
I met my friend TK whom I’ve known since high school, college and beyond for dinner which we enjoyed with a 30% discount from the trusty Blackboard Eats service that I subscribe to. We shared a basket of warm bread, the slices were tender and light and excellent slathered with the soft creamy butter which melted into its yeasty pockets. The bread was unlike the thick crusty bread that is prevalent these days and addictive as all get out.
While the mood lighting creates a lovely atmosphere, it really undermined my effort to photograph the dishes we enjoyed. I couldn’t find a photo of my first course, which was Calamari braised with red wine, orange, leek and chick peas on bruschetta with a rich rouille ($13). What, no photo? I took lots of pictures, but admit that I was busy catching up with my friend who I hadn’t seen in over a year, and then deleted all of the dark, fuzzy and out of focus shots on the BART ride home. The appetizer was a rich earthy dish that was a bit heavy as a starter for my meal, but I just loved the crunch of the bruschetta.
TK had the Grilled Radicchio wrapped in a La Quercia Prosciutto with Watercress and Aïoli ($11), which she thought was heavy as well. Indeed, what do you expect when your item is covered with aioli or rouille…
I really enjoyed my entree of Grilled grass-fed Hanger Steak with a root vegetable gratin, rabe with garlic, and green peppercorn sauce ($26). I tried using the torch on my phone to illuminate my plate, but felt way too conspicuous. Sometimes it’s okay, but in this cozy magical cocoon, not so much. The steak was succulently meaty and tender, magnificent when dragged through the pungent green peppercorn sauce and I chomped my way through the rabe and delectable gratin.
TK had the Grilled Marin Sun Farms Pork Chop with caramelized apples and sautéed savoy cabbage with smoked bacon, cipollinis and fingerling potatoes ($26), which is one of their signature dishes. This sounded like a winning combination and smelled delightful, but unfortunately, the chop was a bit dry and tough.
We split dessert, a Butterscotch Pudding with Caramel Sauce and Creme Fraîche with hazelnut biscotti ($8.5). The caramel sauce added just the right salty bite to the decadently rich and creamy pudding. It satisfied us to our toes and reaffirmed why I love this restaurant.
Woodward’s Garden has a timeless quality and has become even better over the years. I enjoyed my meal and catching up with my friend TK and can’t wait to go back with Mr. K to try their smoked trout bruschetta.