Eat Here: Herb & Wood, San DiegoBy Angelica Malin
There are restaurants, and then there are restaurants. Restaurants that satisfy you with nice good and a decent Chardonnay, and then there are restaurants that challenge you, surprise you, play with you. Restaurants that go beyond the normal offering of 3-courses of well-plated, well-cooked, well-executed food, and give you something really, truly unique and inspired. Herb & Wood is the latter kind of restaurant. It’s somewhere that makes you question whether you ever really knew food at all. Read on to discover why it needs to be top of your bucket list for San Diego dining:
Herb & Wood is the second offering by celebrity chef Brian Malarkey and business partner Chris Puffer. The restaurant is relaxed and casual in its approach, but with a self-same focus on quality, ingredients and seasonality as next-door Juniper and Ivy. The restaurant’s design and feel is truly unique; expect exposed brick walls, an indoor / outdoor dining room with a view of the stars, bountiful indoor flora and fauna, and striking more modern art on the walls.
Herb & Wood’s look is super slick and sexy – the perfect place for a romantic date or evening with your girlfriends. You can dine whilst observing the semi open-kitchen or sit under the open sky. The restaurant’s outdoor dining room adds something really special to the feel of the place – never have I been able to dine in a 3-wall restaurant, nothing blocking you from the night’s sky, all complimented by the dark, dangerous, vibey feel of the place, completed by candle lights. One word: magical.
This is where things get really exciting. Herb & Wood defies convention, with an unusual, seasonally-focused menu, designed to be shared amongst the table. What I love about the menu is its focus on vegetables, colour, variety and flavoursome dishes – the food all compliments each other so well, and there’s no “wrong” way to order here.
It’s a really fun, engaging way of eating, which also allows you to taste and savour all the kitchen’s creativity as a communal experience. When I say this is culinary creation that defies reason or logical, I really mean that. How they manage to get that much flavour out of beetroot, or aubergine, is beyond me. It’s caricature cooking – everything tastes like a heightened, exaggerated version of itself and the dishes are really a work of art, or witchcraft.
We start with the whipped aubergine with za’taar spice, roasted onions, pine nuts and grilled flat bread, which is like bringing out your headline act before the warm-ups, really. It’s one of the best starter-style dishes I’ve ever tasted; a smoked aubergine puree, full of warming spices and a punch of garlic, which is silky smooth in texture, and perfectly complemented by the fresh-out-the-oven warm, slightly charred flatbread. The aubergine is crowned with a sprinkle of roasted pine nuts (it’s the little touches here which are everything) and a handful of fresh chives. Honestly, we were licking the plate clean. Alongside this, we sample the roasted beets with burrata, sherry and walnut pesto. The mixture of golden and red beetroot really adds to the aesthetic of the dish, and it tastes delicious too.
That’s not all. Their tuna tartare with Gochujang, red onion, country wheat and rice pearls is truly delicious – the perfect mixture of soft and crunchy textures, there’s joy in every bite. Next, we try one of my favourite small plates of the night; roasted baby carrots with cashew sesame dukkah, Aleppo yogurt and carrot top pesto .The carrots are cooked perfectly, still with a touch of bite, dressed in rich olive oil, with a slightly sweet, smoky flavour – they are exceptionally moreish.
Our palettes singing with all the flavours and spices, we move onto some larger plates. I didn’t things could get any better, but I was wrong. The beetroot ravioli is, potentially, the best pasta I’ve ever eaten. Heavenly pockets of beetroot and goat’s cheese filled parcels, bursting with a flavoursome filling, dressed in a punchy, full-on beetroot-speckled olive oil sauce – the dish is beyond mouth-watering. It’s the attention to detail that sets this food apart; the pasta is served with chunks of Goat’s cheese, sliced of pickled beetroot for a sweet, salty tang, and candied walnuts for a complimentary sweetness – all topped with fresh herbs, such as chive and flat parsley. It’s all the little things that bring it together, and makes you want this pasta – and nothing but this pasta – for the rest of your days.
But that’s not all. We thought Herb & Wood had no more love to give, and then the Halibut arrived. Oh, what a fish. The most generous, meaty chunk of fresh Halibut, cooked so perfectly it flakes away at the touch of a fork, whose beauty lies in its simplicity. This is where the real skill and brilliance of the Herb & Wood kitchen shines through – it’s very easy to over-complicate restaurant dishes. It’s much more challenging and impressive to know when to hold back. The fish is a case in point; simply grilled with lemon and olive, with a sprinkling of crispy puffed rice, rich, earthy mushrooms and the slightest touch of herby pesto, this is a fish that needs very little to bring out its true beauty. I know it. The kitchen knows it. Darn it, the fish probably knows it. Everything about this dish is so right, and so perfect.
And finally, our tummies full, our hearts even more so, we somehow found space for dessert. We figured, in the name of real journalism, it would be a crime not to. I have a rule in life that if I see a souffle on a dessert menu, all bets are off. Thus, when I spotted the blueberry souffle with buttermilk, blueberry compote and ginger gelato, my heart knew the way. It did not disappoint; expertly cooked, with a soft, melting centre, the burst of fresh blueberries a welcome surprise in every bite, and the most delicious, spicy ginger ice cream to cut through the sweetness, it’s a dessert of dreams. All in all, there’s no a single dish I can fault from the evening – and if there’s a God, he was present in every mouthful of that smoked aubergine dip.
If it’s cocktails you’re after, their bar is a real centre-point of the restaurant, and you could happily spend an evening propped up at the bar, drinking Negronis and making your way through the special bar menu. The cocktail menu features all the classics, as well as some great house-made creations. We opted for the Gin & Lavender cocktail, which is totally delicious. Nowhere mixes cool and sexy dining like San Diego, that’s for sure.
Herb & Wood ticks all the boxes: slick, sexy, with style as well as substance, and food to die for. The restaurant is a self-confident, inviting place, that wants you to have a good time, and isn’t afraid to deliver on flavour. The produce they use is only the best of the best – and you can really taste that in every bite. You know when people ask you what your ‘death row dinner’ would be? If you could eat one meal before you die, what would be? Well, mine would be this meal, on this night, at Herb & Wood, all over again.