Restaurant Review - Boy meets grill

Michael Tuohy's Woodfire a hit of the season

As often as I eat in restaurants, it's shocking how naive I can sometimes be about them.

On a recent Wednesday night, I'm struck with an impulsive, insistent craving for a meal at Woodfire Grill on Cheshire Bridge Road. Woodfire is one of the stars of the bustling fall dining season, so weekend reservations need to be made well ahead of time — unless you want to eat at 10 p.m. But on a Wednesday? It's a school night, right? How busy can it be?

When I pull into Woodfire's small, circular driveway, there's a line of vehicles waiting to be parked. Once inside, I'm told the wait time for a table (with no reservation) is 45 minutes. My backup plan — eating at the bar — is thwarted when I notice that not only are there no free seats, but the bar is encircled with thirsty folks flagging down bartenders for a glass of wine while they mill about, mingling and killing time.

I wait anyway. The food is worth it.

Woodfire's chef/owner Michael Tuohy, a California native, was recruited in the '80s from chef Joyce Goldstein's groundbreaking San Francisco restaurant Square One to open Chef's Cafe in a motel seedily located under an overpass on Piedmont. The now-fabled restaurant raised Atlantans' culinary consciousness by introducing them to the nouveau joys of California cuisine.

Chef's Cafe is long closed. But after having worked in other chef's kitchens for many years, Tuohy is back at the reins. His soulful, ambitious menu, which changes daily, draws from the freshest ingredients of the season. I can observe the months pass just by glancing down the menus I've poached from the restaurant since its opening in late August — roasted peaches and organic squash blossoms have given way to root vegetable soup and cassoulet.

Which is not to say that Tuohy doesn't have favorite ingredients that show up nightly. A crab salad ($12) is a menu standard, layered with avocado, grapefruit, apple and a frilly topping of micro-celery greens. Each bite is refreshing and full of textural contrasts. Succulent grilled duck ($24) with roasted fruit — currently a silken roasted pear — is also a staple in Tuohy's repertoire.

When you pass from the bar into the long, cavernous dining room, it's evident that Woodfire is the ideal autumnal restaurant. Pumpkin-hued shadows flicker on the ceiling. Sweet, smoky smells from the wood-burning oven and grill set you salivating. And no dish seems more apt for nippy weather than Rocky the Free-Range Chicken, the cartoonish name for the plump, happily raised birds that Tuohy has flown in from Petaluma, Calif. Rocky can be ordered for one ($18) or — my preference — as a platter to share ($28). Marinated and grilled, the whole chicken is carved and placed over a bed of earthy, garlicky greens. The platter also comes with crispy, delicious pomme frites (aka french fries), served with lemon aioli. Trust me, no ketchup required.

One thing that impresses me about Tuohy is his obvious willingness to continually improve on his offerings. Case in point: His fritto misto appetizer ($9) started life in August as a less-than-crispy mass of fried seafood buried in a bowl. These days, the morsels have crunch and character, and are served on an oblong platter to help them stay that way. He's also been working on his pizza crust, which at first was doughy and taut. But the crust on a recent pizza ($13), with sun-dried tomato, Georgia goat cheese, and arugula pesto, was thin on the bottom and pleasantly toothsome around the edge.

Some dishes still need improvement. The grilled Niman Ranch pork chop ($23) comes out dry and a tad over-salted more times than not. Ditto the oven-roasted whole fish ($35 for two), which is a lovely presentation stuffed with lemon, garlic, and herbs, but isn't as moist as I would hope on both the occasions I try it.

The fish dish is an anomaly, fortunately. On my most recent visit, Chesapeake rockfish (mysteriously being pushed as "tautog") is meltingly delicate, made seasonal with chanterelle butter and accompanied by a parsnip-cauliflower puree ($19). It's scrumptious.

Tuohy has wisely hired a pastry chef, Patti Roth. I wasn't crazy about desserts here before she came along — the fruit crisp was never crisp, for example, and I gave it more than one shot. Now the kitchen is sending forth such sweet creations as the pumpkin pot de creme with cardamom cream ($7). It tastes like the ultimate pumpkin pie filling without the crust. I'm so stealing the idea for my Thanksgiving dinner this year. The other dessert fave of the moment is a decadent Ecuadorian chocolate bread pudding with rum ice cream ($7).

And of course, there's the cheese. Atlanta's fromage guru, Raymond Hook, sends forth three ($9) or five ($14) exquisitely ripe samples from the cheese case, which is placed temptingly by the entrance to the dining room. Everyone I bring here is taken with the idea of sampling the cheeses in the order specified by Hook for maximum gustatory appreciation — from a seductively creamy Vacherin Mont d'Or, for example, to a pungent Spanish blue wrapped in chestnut leaves.

Sitting at my long-awaited table, I watch Tuohy run back and forth from the kitchen to the grill, and then stop for a moment to schmooze with a table of regulars. He wears an expression of both concentration and contentment. And as I chow down on juicy roasted chicken, I can't help but think it must feel darn good for him to have a hit on his hands.