Restaurant review: Woodfire Grill

Inconsistent service distracts from good food and drink

Woodfire Grill owner Nicolas Quinones says he considers his restaurant one of Atlanta's top four fine dining establishments along with Aria, Restaurant Eugene, and Bacchanalia. He says he believes in the beauty of fine dining as an art form, from the crisp white linens to a server's posture while approaching a table to the coordinated drops of dishes. He says there is a void in Atlanta for such service. Calling your establishment a fine dining restaurant is very different from it being one, however.

One could argue that Quinones' brand of fine dining is his personal style, though the actual experience at Woodfire is more casual than Quinones aspires for it to be. The staff tries to employ those old French service techniques, but recurring inconsistencies make the approach feel forced and outdated. Sometimes your table is swept after a course. Other times, it is not. One evening, service was tight and remarkable. Another, my dining companion and I felt borderline embarrassed for our server, who was fumbling to keep up with all of the formalized tasks he was supposed to complete during our meal. At the end of one meal, I received a little package of cookies as a parting gift — many fine dining restaurants often send customers home with some sort of small bite — but the other night we received nothing. Quinones is trying too hard to make Woodfire something it isn't, instead of focusing on the restaurant's strengths: the food and booze.

When Kevin Gillespie, fresh off "Top Chef," was Woodfire's executive chef/co-owner, 2009-2013, reservations were nearly impossible to secure unless you could wait a month or more. Fans and critics raved about Gillespie's intricate tasting menus and marveled at the way he transformed a restaurant known under founding chef/owner Michael Tuohy for upscale California cuisine into a special-occasion must. When Gillespie left to pursue his restaurant Gunshow and chef Tyler Williams was hired to replace him, it seemed Woodfire might continue its ascent. It did not. Instead, it quietly fell into relative obscurity despite Williams' great cooking. When Williams left in May, Matthew Weinstein took over the kitchen and was officially appointed executive chef in July. Weinstein, who spent many of his formative chef years under Maryland-based "Top Chef" alum Bryan Voltaggio, is a relaxed chef who says he "likes to keep it playful and explore."

Woodfire's menu is broken up into four categories to encourage people to craft their own tasting menus, according to Quinones. Two official tasting menus, a five-course ($70) and a seven-course ($90), are offered in regular (meat-heavy), vegetarian, and pescatarian formats. Weinstein takes more creative liberties with the seven-course tastings. The five-course menu includes smaller portions of existing menu items. It's a good option if you want to sample a lot of the menu. I recommend the meat or fish tasting. My vegetarian order left me hungry and was not a great value. My dining companion ordered the meat and was given a beautiful piece of Painted Hills rib-eye at the meal's climax. I received a roasted trumpet mushroom with the same accouterments as the steak. I understand that mushroom is intrinsically meaty, but the portion was relatively paltry and left me unsatisfied. Surely such a talented chef could dream up a more interesting vegetarian main course.

Seasonality is as important here as it has been since the restaurant was founded in 2002, well before "farm-to-table" became a buzz term in Atlanta. Produce provides fresh inspiration for Weinstein, although sometimes he chooses flavors that don't play well together. One night, the chef spun eggplant, peppers, and Malabar spinach into a pasta dish. The dish's flavors failed to come together, however, mainly due to a swirl of charred eggplant that was more reminiscent of a spent campfire than the actual vegetable.

But there is also brilliance and beauty here. The sweetbreads presentation made me gasp out loud in surprised delight. The Pollock-esque splatters of tart squid ink vinaigrette and house-made, coppa-infused San Marzano tomato sauce set the stage for an incredibly involved sweetbread preparation. Weinstein soaks the sweetbreads overnight in milk, poaches them in court-bouillon (a vegetable and herb stock) with champagne vinegar, peels them, breaks them down, sears them, presses them between sheet pans, and then cooks them sous vide. The sweetbreads are then crisped to order in grapeseed oil and placed atop the sauces with a swirl of delicate pink coppa, fried pork skin, and small leaves of Thai basil. It's like veal Parm went on a vacation to some Thai beach town and did way too many drugs.

A seemingly simple starter of roasted-beet borscht left us reveling in an acidic and smoky profile that seemed so familiar, but also very new. The chef roasts his beets using the smoke of the meats from service then transforms them into a borscht with red wine vinegar, horseradish, and lemon zest before serving it with shallot cream and beet chunks. Many of Weinstein's dishes adopt a country and run with that flavor profile. A hunk of black grouper went Moroccan with roasted carrots, bulgur salad studded with golden raisins and fennel fronds, and a dollop of whipped yogurt. I have since found myself craving this combination of flavors and textures.

A small cluster of pickled chanterelles lightens rare lamb chops accompanied by a fatty and crispy spiral of lamb "porchetta" on top of a potato purée and topped with spaghetti squash. A dish of figs and nutty pesto made with pistachio, mint, parsley and cotija exemplifies how well this chef transforms unrelated ingredients into something memorable.

The conceptualization and plating of the desserts produced by chef Patrick Dineen seem out of line with the restaurant's stated fine dining concept. The offerings should be more delicate and refined, like Weinstein's cooking, but tend to be comfort food-type of desserts. I've been served undercooked crepes, leaden chocolate cakes, and greasy zeppole.

Quinones is a certified sommelier, and Woodfire's wine list is one of our city's strongest. He tends to favor cool-climate and highly acidic wines because they pair well with the kind of food Weinstein cooks. Many of the by-the-glass selections are biodynamic or organic, and there are good values whether you want a white burgundy or a funky Andres Dupuis pinot noir. The bar manager is Melissa Davis, who hails from the General Muir and Cakes & Ale. She manages the bar in a laid-back way that makes you feel at ease with her charming smile and cool retro-modern aprons. Her cocktails are all about precision, and she understands how to layer flavors.

Even though Quinones has lowered the prices, he says his biggest challenge is getting guests in the door. I think the restaurant's identity crisis is just as much of an issue. If Quinones wants Woodfire to be considered among the city's top fine dining establishments, the restaurant must nail the service. The fuss is too much of a distraction otherwise. Perhaps Quinones should relegate his appreciation of a dying art form into just that, an appreciation, because Woodfire could be a restaurant where people can find consistent service and good food for a special occasion or on a random Wednesday night.

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