PETE TITTL: Wool Growers still at the top of its game

02 Feb  0 Media, Press

Photo by John Harte / For The Californian
As is the case pretty much every night, the large dining room at Wool Growers is packed and bustling.

BY PETE TITTL For The Californian pftittl@yahoo.com

The impromptu idea was to go to Wool Growers without reservations on a weekday evening. It was the night before New Year’s Eve. Surely no one would be out. Things would be calm. We’d stroll right in, get seated and commence the feast.

Such a foolish idea. Entering through the side door to the banquet room, which can be a great way to be seated for a family-style experience, did not work. There was a friendly bustle in the air, almost no seats — unless your party was up for not eating together — and everyone in the room already looked like the best of friends.

We walked to the front and got put on the list. It turns out it’s always busy around the holiday at Wool Growers, no matter what night it is, the hostess explained. We only had a half-hour wait, as it turns out, which sailed by with a Picon punch in the bar.

It’s been too long since I devoted an entire column to this great restaurant. Sure I’ve visited, kept it on the recommended list and mentioned it here and there in the Dish, but to devote an entire column to the excellence of this Basque gem on the east side is overdue. I have a friend on Facebook who called it “overrated.” Had he not been such a witty raconteur, I would’ve defriended him on the spot. Instead, I will devote the rest of this column to describing our most recent dining experience in a way that might persuade him to change his mind, though he is a stubborn sort and I’m not optimistic.

The restaurant starts off with karma points for sharing on the Internet its recipe for both those marvelous beans and that fantastic Basque cabbage soup. We tried the soup, made it at home with that special Better than Bouillon chicken base you can buy at Vons and chopped up all the leeks necessary (the secret ingredient, I think).

But as good as ours was, their soup was better. They’ve got an edge in experience, I’m sure. And the salsa, which I haven’t even attempted, is a perfectly suitable companion, with just the finest bits of green pepper mixed in. I can’t forget the fresh-cut Pyrenees French bread with butter. A normal person’s appetite would be winded at least by the opening offerings.

I vowed on this visit to order entrees we don’t usually get, which meant spurning that fantastic chicken with garlic drizzled on top, any of the steaks, the great lamb chops, the breast of chicken or breaded veal. All good, all still worth ordering from the list of 19 dinners, which seemed to have been trimmed over the years, but nothing disappeared that I miss.

Instead we ordered the scampi ($22) and the brochette of beef (also $22).

Now, how will we come back and not order these? Madness, really, if we did. The six jumbo shrimp, butterflied, were served on an oval platter with the most amazing garlic-butter-cream sauce. The creaminess is what it makes it so irresistible. How good was it? My companion was grabbing any available starch (bread, French fries, spaghetti) to sop it up. “The no-carbs diet starts tomorrow,” she said. And I couldn’t blame her. The shrimp did not have that nasty, vaguely chlorinated taste that so many restaurant shrimp are burdened with nowadays, and the sauce was the perfect companion.

My companion’s shish kebab (that’s really what it looked like) had large tender chunks of steak skewered with green peppers and onions and served with an amazing mushroom sauce. The size of the steak pieces amazed me. One looked about the size of a handball. Nothing dainty about this, and I must say the quality of the beef almost knocked me out of my seat. Overrated? For $22, including set-up? Outrageous.

They get the little details right in a lot of ways at Wool Growers. I ordered a glass of house cabernet (Hacienda is the winery). It was brought to the table at the perfect temperature for a cab — not room temperature but not excessively chilled, a mistake too many Basque restaurants make.

The pickled tongue has just the perfect amount of garlic, and the spaghetti with meat sauce, sprinkled with Parmesan cheese was irresistible.

I do not believe in the history of our visits that a French fry ever left the table unconsumed. They’re fresh-cut, starchy, some long and twisted like a vine’s gnarled root. Crisp outside, soft inside.

Probably the least alluring food we sampled that night was the corn, canned and minimally enhanced with parsley. It recalled childhood school cafeteria days of a similar product, but vegetables often get the after-thought treatment at a Basque restaurant.

One word about the atmosphere: It seems to walk a fine line between honoring the past and just being dated.

I love the warm lighting in the dining room, though the banquet room in the back seems lighter and, hence, livelier. It’s almost like two different restaurants.

Service was solid even though it was busy the entire time. Our waitress appeared at the appropriate times, no one tried to whisk food away too early and they weren’t pushing us out the door to seat those waiting nearby with pained expressions on their faces.

I know, I know. But I wanted to tell them their patience will be rewarded.

Wool Growers can be recommended for a fine dining experience.

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