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Back to Nature

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.

Likely to become a local favorite is the deceptively simple, entree-sized Nantucket Bleu Spinach Salad, currently offered only on the lunch menu. But beware! Blueberries, the mainstay of this creation, are not in season for the next five or six months, and my waiter warned me that the kitchen might substitute blackberries. That might have been acceptable to me had I not lucked out and gotten blueberries. Now, having sampled the packet of deliberately folded, tender spinach leaves doused in blueberry vinaigrette and sprinkled with toasted pecans, fresh blueberries and blue cheese, I may create a scene if I visit later this winter and am told I'll have to accept a substitute berry. I understand perfectly why the salad has become the menu's most requested item.

Chef Melissa Bailey, who came with husband Benjamin from the Omni Hotel, is the inspiration behind the desserts. Her Chocolate Sensation is a refreshing departure from the trend in chocolate desserts that seems to say, "Take no prisoners; we're going to overwhelm you with chocolate." Presented in a miniature bundt cake with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a spoonful of hot fudge sauce, the chocolate here is of the refined European variety. And though I haven't had a chance to sample her Warm Bread Pudding, made from cinnamon croissants, I hear it can respectably be pitted against Brennan's famous version anytime.

Redwood Grill owners Ethel Fisher and Manfred Jachmich, who also co-own the Post Oak Grill, wax enthusiastic about the young husband and wife chef team they filched from Tim Keating, executive chef at the Omni. Jachmich readily concedes the large hand the Baileys had in the creation of the Grill; Fisher calls the Baileys their "best find." The Baileys' credentials are certainly up to par: they met at the Culinary Institute in New York and then joined Keating here in Melissa's hometown. Benjamin Bailey describes his stint at the Omni under Keating's tutelage as a great opportunity -- one that, thanks to the many chefs from all over the world whom Keating brought in for visits, exposed him to an amazing array of influences.

Now, though, he and his wife are doing their own influencing. And if we're lucky, the couple will be nudging diners to get back to nature at the Redwood Grill for a long time to come.

Redwood Grill, 4611 Montrose Boulevard, 523-4611.

Redwood Grill:
smoked chicken and portobello quesadillas, $5.25;
Asian seared tuna, $14.95;
Nantucket Bleu Spinach Salad, $4.95.


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