Halfway through my second meal at Wood, I asked the bartender, who was my server that night, to tell me something about the chef. “Chef Ashlee?” he said. “He came from—” And then he was pulled away by a customer who needed a cocktail, of which there were many, and for whom he was the only bartender on duty.
I don’t make a habit of quizzing the staff of a restaurant about their coworkers, but the “small plate” (none of which are actually that small) I was eating made me curious. It was a soft-shell crab, battered so lightly at first I thought it had been merely sautéed, and it was sitting on a summery mix of corn, fava beans and small tomatoes that had been peeled. I wanted to know who the chef was who had the restraint not to deep-fry his soft-shells as if they were onion rings, and the foresight to see that tomato skins would just get in the way. Whoever he was, he was impressing me, and the soft-shell crab—which unfortunately included a pile of dry, undressed arugula—wasn’t even the best dish I had tried. That would be the squash blossoms, light and crispy ricotta-filled flowers on a punchy eggplant puree, and the golden piece of juicy chicken topped with a panzanella salad. Or it’s the pork belly, which is more meat than fat, like a notably tender pork steak. It may even be the country ham flatbread (the crust has a good crunch without being the type of thing that cuts your mouth), or the Caesar-like Little Gem salad. Truth is, it’s hard to pick a favorite because while all of chef Ashlee Aubin’s dishes are quite good, none feel very new, and certainly none break any new ground. It’s a steady stream of well-executed, full-flavored neighborhood food, each dish as solid as the next.
If there’s anything about Wood that is a revelation, it might be the service, which was careful and considerate and concerned to the point that I worried the staff might be getting too emotionally involved. When a companion and I sent back a plate of perfectly good risotto to make room for that chicken (which frankly deserved the space more), a server stopped by to make sure the risotto (which we hadn’t made much of a dent in) had been okay. Minutes later, another staff person stopped by to kindly ask the same question. We reassured both that the risotto was more than okay, but the looks on their faces as they walked away led me to believe that this would be coming up in their therapy sessions nonetheless.
I might have told the staff that the Stiff One, one of Wood’s cheekily named cocktails, is a little syrupy, but I didn’t bother, because I rather liked the amaro-based Amalfi Cooler and the smoky, tequila-based Red Wood. Plus, I was happy not focusing on the drinks. There’s enough drinking in this neighborhood, and Wood’s one of the first places in a while to realize that, hey, Boystown’s gotta eat.