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Back to Nature

Redwood Grill gets down to basics in an original way

Winter seems a fortuitous season for the opening of the Redwood Grill, and also for a first visit to this new restaurant, which is housed in the Chelsea Market where Anthony's used to reside. Redwood Grill has retained the same warm terra-cotta walls as Anthony's and the same terrazzo tile floors; they've added a mahogany bar and booths, all finely polished to a soft burnished glow. (While mahogany is not, of course, redwood, when stained just so it is red wood.) All these autumnal, terrestrial colors gave me a comforting sense that I was reconnecting with Mother Earth -- perhaps even walking into the interior of some mammothly mutated winter squash.

It may be that executive chef Benjamin Bailey's cooking philosophy rubbed off on the restaurant's designers. He believes that the earth provides us with an excellent product in her natural foodstuffs, and that the more we mess with those ingredients, the more we risk messing up. In a word, he believes in simplicity, in letting the ingredients speak for themselves. He believes in the contrasts and complements that will emerge organically between ingredients when combined using imagination and common sense. And it works! Even before I was aware of Bailey's strategy, my friends and I found ourselves gleefully announcing to each other when our taste buds discovered one of the ingredients touted on the menu.

We were especially pleased with ourselves when we identified components the menu didn't prepare us for. "Ah, there's the lemon grass," we kept saying, or, "Is that a dried roasted pepper I taste in this lasagna?" (I was wrong -- it turned out to be whole peppercorns.) That's not to say that Bailey's cooking is an inharmonious cacophony. The combinations are usually successful, often ingenious and never precious. When he insists, for instance, that fennel and saffron work together on a filet of seared snapper, he's right. And deliciously so.

Take, for another example, the smoked chicken and portobello quesadillas. The smoky pungency of this appetizer, when dunked in the tomatillo-based infusion of its accompanying tequila lime sauce, spoke volumes to me of the smoldering aromas of fall in New Mexico or the foothills of the Rockies. But where the quesadillas pleased in terms of flavor, they missed the mark in terms of texture. Instead of having the delicate snap that even Taco Cabana manages to impart to its quesadillas, these collapsed between my fingers like pancakes when I lifted them from the plate. Did I miss a culinary trend espousing the merits of crossing quesadillas with blini?

This was, though, the only major complaint I've had with Redwood Grill. The Louisiana spiced calamari were spikily reminiscent of Cajun country and were suitably crisp -- even though a companion lamented their bantam size. Compared to the fleshy slabs of the stuff available in the Mediterranean, the often over-battered calamari served in this town appear tiny. My friend misses being able to really taste the calamari meat. Seems like a basic request. I don't know how easy it would be to obtain better calamari, but I'd love to see what Bailey could do with it. Maybe a hybrid of Greek and Asian treatments? The accompanying smoked onion remoulade, sort of a blending of Cajun and Southwest culinary influences, was a winner, but the dollop of vegetable slaw that came on the plate was not. If the excessive mayonnaise can't be wrung from it, my advice would be to lose the slaw.

The Asian seared tuna, though, is just fine as is. It's promoted as being "heart healthy," but not to worry: here, low fat does not equate to low flavor. Marinated in soy and ginger, served on a colorful bed of stir-fried vegetables and chewy steamed rice, all steeped in a lemon grass broth, these tender, meaty pieces of fish are seared to order. Heed the recommendation that rarer is better, and that medium-rare is as cooked as you'll want it. My medium-rare steak was 95 percent moist and meaty; perhaps if I'd asked it be cooked rare, the touch of dryness around the edges would have been eliminated. (Though rareness wouldn't have helped the thin layer of tendon I found in the otherwise flawless cut of tuna.) The whole dish was flavorful yet delicate, heartily portioned yet manageable: close to perfection, and a great example of chef Bailey's letting the ingredients show themselves off with minimal interference. Each of the components, from the snappy emerald snow peas to the invisible ginger, showcased itself in a exquisite blending of visual, textural and gustatory appeal.

Red-blooded meat eaters who aren't convinced that the seared tuna won't leave them cold have plenty of other options. Redwood Grill gives away its Texas location by offering more meat, game and poultry than anything else. The veal medallions, topped with forest mushrooms and stuffed with spinach, grana Parmesan and a hint of fresh mozzarella (homemade by Bailey and company), is earthy and robust. However, the rich veal gravy, which is ladled over everything, threatened to become overwhelming about three-quarters of the way through the meal. Or maybe that was just a gentle warning from the heavens not to overindulge.

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