I was in the dentist’s chair this morning talking about restaurants with a woman who was, at the time, holding very sharp things very close to my gums. I say “talking about restaurants,” but in reality it was a fairly one-sided conversation. My contributions were mainly grunts with an occasional hand signal to indicate “I agree,” or “no no no no please don’t poke me there.”
My dentist and her assistant (both of whom, I have to say, are pretty awesome, and caused me less pain than most of the cartoons my 2.5 year-old daughter watches) said they don’t dine out too much, but they both also asked me how we had so many restaurants opening these days. I don’t really have an answer, but by coincidence it’s a question that came to mind when I went to Wood Pizza Bistro and Tap House today for lunch. It came to mind because pizza restaurants are one of the best examples of how the dining scene has changed in New Orleans post-Katrina, and entirely for the better.
The chef at Wood… is Will Salisbury. When you hear that he worked at Pizza Domenica when it opened, and that the oven at Wood is fueled by, well, lumber, you might think that Salisbury’s pies are a knock-off. To be honest, there are similarities between the pizzas at Wood and Domenica, but those mainly have to do with the quality of the toppings and the attention paid to details throughout the menu.
I don’t care whether a pizza’s crust is thin or thick, as long as it’s good. The crust is the first, most important element of a great pizza, and they’ve got a good one at Wood. It’s not the wafer-thin, crisp version at Pizza Domenica; it reminds me more of the pizza I loved so much when I was a kid and my friend Dan was running the show at Mark Twain’s Pizza Kitchen on Metairie Road.
Wood puts out a pie that’s blistered and bubbling at the edges, with some chewy texture to the crumb and enough substance to hold up to a fairly substantial volume where it comes to toppings. If all goes well, a photograph of one of the pies should accompany this piece, and while it may not be my best work, I think it does give you a pretty good impression of what I’m discussing.
The edge of the crust pillows up, and if you pull it apart you’ll see it tearing and stretching like a great fresh bread should. Those blisters you also see on the edge came, in this case, from the pie being held up at the hottest part of the oven, the top, on a long peel for about 30 seconds just as it finished cooking. I can’t swear they do that for every pie, but it was pretty cool to watch; it was a touch that made it look like the chef was playing the oven like an instrument.
Toppings are standard, but of high quality. In addition to pepperoni and fennel sausage, there’s coppa, prosciutto, anchovy, egg and chicken on the “meat” side of the aisle; the standard mushrooms (though roasted here) onions (raw or caramelized) peppers and artichoke all appear on the vegetable side, as do capers, eggplant, arugula and kalamata olives. There are three sauces: tomato, pesto and garlic cream, and you can get taleggio, asiago and gorgonzola cheese if you’re tired of mozzarella, ricotta or parmigiano. Though why you would tire of any of those cheeses escapes me; perhaps it’s better to say you can have the aforementioned cheeses in addition to the usual suspets.
Pies come in one size, which I estimate to be about 10 inches; prices run from $9 for the marinara and margarita to $10 for the pepperoni and bianco, to $14 for the sausage pizza (which comes with the garlic cream sauce, parmigiano, crushed pepper and olive oil). I did not finish my mushroom pizza, but then I also ordered the roasted scallops appetizer (seared cauliflower, marcona almonds, mint, yogurt and black sesame seeds, as well as a pretty good hit of black pepper). I ate all of that dish, and ended up using parts of the pizza crust to swipe the plate. Next time I go to Wood, I’m going to suggest they put the scallops and cauliflower onto a pie, because that was a hell of a combination.
Service was fine for me, but there were a couple of guys next to me grumbling about not being served for a few minutes after they sat down. It turned out the restaurant was down a server today, so the bartender was pulling double duty. These are things I tend to accept now, but your mileage may vary. My guess is that service will go more smoothly once the place gets a few miles under its wheels.
There are about 20 seats inside, all either at the bar or a high counter wrapped around one side of the pizza oven. The 60-80 seats outside on the patio are not, as I write, particularly enticing, but that’s definitely going to change, and soon. I was told they’re considering adding heaters and some sort of cover to the area, but I’m not sure that’s a wise investment. Soon enough the weather will comply, and heaters will be unnecessary to say the least.
There’s a full bar and around 40 beers on tap, but to get into that would be stepping on McNally’s toes, and one does not do that willy-nilly. I was certainly satisfied with the beer I had, and look forward to working my way down the selection.
If you read this column regularly, you know I don’t tend to write negatively about any place, really. It’s not what I do here; I don’t give false praise, but just as one bad meal does not make a restaurant terrible, one good meal does not mean I’ve found the second coming. To me the mark of a good restaurant is whether I’m anxious to return, or to take my wife, friends or clients. I can’t say that Wood Pizza Bistro and Taproom has taken the place of Ancorra or Domenica in my “where am I taking my wife for our anniversary” sweepstakes, but I’ll definitely be back, and when the weather gets a bit more pleasant and the courtyard becomes a realistic option for seating, I’ll be in fat city.
Wood Pizza Bistro and Tap House is located at 404 Andrew Higgins, across Tchoupitoulas from Cochon, and across Andrew Higgins from the Salty Dog. The kitchen is open from 11 to 11 every day; the bar (excuse me, “tap room”) stays open until around 2 a.m. Call them at 281-4893 to see what’s up at the moment.