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The 40-Year-Old Virgin

As a successor to Bay Wolf, the Wolf brings fresh comfort to Piedmont Avenue.

SLIDESHOW

Clockwise from top left: Alaskan black cod; grilled pork loin; grilled Little Gems and endive; baby lettuces.

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The new Wolf has a familiar old face 

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Pommes dauphine with trout roe, rémoulade, and dill.

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Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. In restaurants, at least, it is mostly manufactured. We see it in dining rooms dressed as throwback supper clubs; in menus filled with revived childhood favorites; in archival cocktails assembled by bartenders barely old enough to drink. 

There’s nothing wrong with this sort of theater. But it’s nice when the settings aren’t so staged, when the remembrances of meals past have roots in something real.

The roots run deep at the Wolf, which is not a reincarnation of Bay Wolf but a kindred spirit occupying the same Piedmont Avenue location where that estimable restaurant stood for 40 years. Over its long life, Bay Wolf was often called the Chez Panisse of Oakland. A lot of restaurants have been called the Chez Panisse of somewhere, but with Bay Wolf, you could make a credible case. Like Alice Waters, its cofounder Michael Wild compensated for his lack of formal kitchen training with a keen vision of French-inflected West Coast cooking. And like Our Lady of the Little Gem, he transformed a beautiful Craftsman-style building into a culinary landmark at a time when the surrounding neighborhood didn’t have much else.

When Bay Wolf closed nearly two years ago, Rebekah and Rich Wood were among those who mourned its loss. They’d had their first dates there in the mid-1990s before going on to open Oakland’s Wood Tavern and its neighboring sandwich shop, Southie. Both places specialize in Cal-Med comfort food and are so genially run that it’s hard to get mad when you can’t find a seat in either, a frequent occurrence. They’re a bit like Tom Hanks, another East Bay product: No one seems to have a bad word to say about them.

By opening the Wolf, they’ve given their faithful following another destination, albeit one that carries emotional resonance for many diners: For such a young restaurant, there are lots of memories floating around. Its wood-shingled exterior is unchanged, as is the covered front porch dining area. It’s a great place to sit, with dark wood walls, wood tables, and overhead heaters. 

Things looks a little different in the restaurant’s dining room, where a warren of nooks and crannies has been swapped for an open kitchen and U-shaped white quartz bar. Hotel lobby artwork hangs on the walls, as does a mirror-screen television that only plays when the Warriors do.

On those evenings, the lounge-like area morphs into the world’s most polite sports bar, awash in baby boomers sipping wine, slurping oysters, and nibbling duck liver pâté toasts. To say that the food won’t knock your socks off isn’t a knock. The Wolf isn’t out to strip you of your comforts; it wants to wrap you in its embrace.

The menu, overseen by former Wood Tavern chef Yang Peng, revolves around classic brasserie dishes, some gently updated, others left pretty much as they were. There is steak tartare, the diced meat layered over hollandaise sauce and spiked with minced red onions, chives, and capers that cut the raw beef’s iron-richness. There is also a salad of roasted beets with a wintry array of mandarins, arugula, and toasted pistachios, scattered on a spread of fromage blanc.

Depending on your degree of Gallic hipness, pommes dauphine might call for a translation (ping-pong-ball-size potato fritters piled in a white bowl over trout roe, rémoulade, and dill). But you won’t be asking Siri for assistance with the menu—mizuna is about as exotic as it gets. The peppery green brightens a terrific starter of olive oil–poached tuna and butter beans, amiable companions that are tossed together and drizzled with salsa verde for a just-so kick. The fish and beans go quickly, and when they do, you’ll want to ask for bread to clean up any streaks of the briny, herb-flecked oil they leave behind.

The deeper you dive into the menu, the more the cooking drifts into a kind of hefty uniformity, hearty roasts and braises with buttery starches being the central theme. I won’t deny that polenta makes a nice nest for roasted and sliced duck breast with maitake mushrooms, just as I won’t quibble with the combination of osso buco and green-garlic whipped potatoes blanketed in escargot bordelaise. But when you add those dishes to a list already freighted with butter-browned black cod with sunchoke purée, and a root vegetable stew with fried mushrooms and grits, and an underseasoned pork loin with farro verde…that’s when I would argue that your comforting cuisine has grown too rich for comfort.

But for a lot of diners, the absence of surprises is precisely the appeal of a place like the Wolf.

When Bay Wolf first opened, and for decades thereafter, Piedmont Avenue was a blue-rinse stretch. While the locals have gotten younger, the Wolf is one of those rare new Oakland restaurants where I, a 50-year-old, can walk in and lower the median age. With maturity comes knowledge, and with knowledge the awareness that loud dining rooms are annoying. The Wolf rewards this brand of maturity: On a recent visit, I realized that I could hear what my friend was saying, and that almost no one in the restaurant was looking at their phone.

We were sitting at the bar, sharing a chocolate panna cotta that called to mind the chocolate puddings of my childhood, perfectly good but not as intensely dark as I now like my chocolate. It didn’t quite inspire any Proustian reflections. But for someone else that night, I’m sure it might as well have been a madeleine.  

 

The Ticket: A recommended dinner for two at the Wolf
Oysters on the half shell with blood orange mignonette and Fresno chili..................$3 each
Steak tartare...............................................................................................................$15
Roasted baby beets....................................................................................................$8
Olive oil–poached tuna, butter beans, mizuna, radish................................................$12
Maple leaf duck breast with polenta, maitake mushrooms, broccolini........................$31
Veal osso buco, green-garlic potato purée, escargot bordelaise................................$32
Valrhona chocolate panna cotta..................................................................................$9
Saint Aubin Premier Cru, En Montceau, Burgundy, 2014...........................................$18
Beaujolais Villages, Dominique Piron, 2015...............................................................$8.50
TOTAL........................................................................................................................$145.50 

The Wolf
3853 Piedmont Ave. (at Rio Vista Ave.), Oakland 510-879-7953
2.5 stars

 

Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco

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