Review: Wood Cask Has Bad Food -- and Bad Service, Too 

click to enlarge cafe1-1.jpg

Friends, please gather 'round and lower your heads for a moment of silence as we say goodbye to a trend: the whiskey and comfort food joint. If the Wood Cask is any indication, it's over — gone to that magical place in the sky to frolic with pan-Asian, molecular gastronomy, and chicken and waffles.

It's not that trends necessarily go to die in suburban strip malls (though that's certainly a red flag). If the Wood Cask's only crime were that of location, it would be a non-issue.

No, the reason that the Wood Cask sounds the death rattle of whiskey joints is that it marks the point in this trend's life cycle where a concept that was originally fresh and interesting has become more watered down than Buffalo Trace on the rocks on a steamy August day — a mere caricature of what you've come to expect rather than an actual, bona fide original.

Perhaps I am being too hard on the Wood Cask. After all, owner Dan Marten did a nice job converting Kirkwood's former dark and dingy Eleven Mile House into a warm, inviting space — particularly on the bar side. Reclaimed wooden beams cover the walls, old barrels dot the room, and a back-lit bar showcases an adequate whiskey collection. The most striking feature of the room is the gigantic brass chandelier that casts an amber glow over the space. Though the dining-room side is a generic space with tables and half banquettes, the bar side makes guests feel as if they've stepped into an elegant converted barn.

click to enlarge The Scotch egg features a soft-boiled egg wrapped in sausage and coated in breadcrumbs. - MABEL SUEN
  • Mabel Suen
  • The Scotch egg features a soft-boiled egg wrapped in sausage and coated in breadcrumbs.

And if you sit there and order something off the well-seasoned grill, you'll have a good time (especially if Pete is your bartender — but more about that later). An order of plump chicken wings, branded with char marks, are tossed in a light whiskey sauce (the menu says "glaze," but the coating was much too thin for that term) that tastes like a cocktail of Maull's and Jack Daniel's.

A thick-cut rib eye came out cooked to a juicy medium-rare with grill marks so perfect you could play tic-tac-toe on it. The steak rested atop sugary caramelized onions and was served with mild blue cheese compound butter. Though the rib eye was far and away the culinary highlight of the visit, a simple burger also showcased the Wood Cask's excellent grill. The thick patty rested on a buttery brioche bun and was coated with enough black pepper and salt to form a thin, delicious crust.

Aside from a Boston bibb lettuce salad that was oddly served as a whole, core-on head of greens, drenched in so much dressing I should have been served a spoon instead of a fork, the bar-side experience had me holding out hope for the Wood Cask. Things took a dramatic downturn, however, in the dining room.

The first indication of trouble with the food was the Scotch egg, a deep-fried, sausage-wrapped hard-boiled egg. These are a British classic, yet the sausage was tough and overwhelmed by fennel, and the entire enterprise was dried out. There were five of us at the table. We didn't finish it.

Meanwhile, the "Wood Cask Boil," which we mistakenly assumed to be a nod to a Cajun shrimp boil, was advertised as being "poached in tomato garlic broth." Instead, it was swimming in cream of tomato soup — and room temperature soup at that. A few cubes of overcooked potatoes drowned in the thick sauce.

click to enlarge The hand-cut beef ribeye features a twelve-ounce portion served with bleu-cheese butter, whiskey onions and a vegetable side. - MABEL SUEN
  • Mabel Suen
  • The hand-cut beef ribeye features a twelve-ounce portion served with bleu-cheese butter, whiskey onions and a vegetable side.

I'd say that the salmon was so mediocre it would be at home at the Cheesecake Factory — but the salmon I've had there (come on, who hasn't been dragged against their will?) has much more pizazz. The Wood Cask's version isn't offensive per se, just painfully boring: overcooked fish, lackluster brown sugar bourbon sauce that needed acid for oomph, and a boring sauté of asparagus and mushrooms.

Were the pork chop not overcooked, it would have been an enjoyable dish. Again, the sweet meat benefited from the seasoned grill, infusing it with a deep, earthy flavor. The whiskey bordelaise sauce took very little flavor from the booze but was still an adequate gravy, and the accompanying pudding was a well-executed marriage of cornbread and grits. However, our server announced with much fanfare that the pork chop was served medium. It arrived well-done.

A minor detail also prevented the "Cowboy Flatbread" from realizing its full potential. The golden crust, glistening with olive oil and brushed with horseradish cream sauce, was covered with pieces of shaved, medium-rare roast beef. Fontina cheese melted over the dish, but the promised whiskey-glazed onions were nowhere to be found. Their presence would have taken the dish from good to really good.

The biggest offenders were the fish tacos — so mushy that it was difficult to tell where the blackened tilapia ended and the flour tortillas began. Even the cabbage lacked crunch. A side of watery salsa was supposed to be used for a garnish, though this would have only made matters worse.

click to enlarge Caramelized peaches topped with whipped cream and toasted almonds. - MABEL SUEN
  • Mabel Suen
  • Caramelized peaches topped with whipped cream and toasted almonds.

Fortunately, this mess of a dish allowed me to save room for the meal's high note — a bowl of bourbon-soaked peaches covered in thick, vanilla-scented whipped cream. Give me a few orders of these and several shots of whiskey, and I might come around in my opinion of the place.

I take that back. I will not come around on this one. And the biggest offender of the meal was not the fish-taco debacle. It was the amateur service. Granted, we got our orders taken and were usually able to get our server's attention by flagging him down, but I have little patience for someone who asked repeatedly, "Are you done with that?" in reference to signing the check, then ran us over while talking on his phone as we walked out the front door.

Which is why I need to bring up Pete, the polished, knowledgeable bartender who seemed to be a one-man show at the Wood Cask. As we sat at the bar, I witnessed guests get up from the dining room to complain to him about the service. I saw servers come up to him and complain about the guests complaining about them. For two hours straight, he was putting out fires in the dining room, explaining the origins of Cuban rum to a group at the bar and making ticket after ticket of drinks. If you're at the Wood Cask, sit at Pete's bar and order a steak and you'll have a good time.

Unless he, too, figures out that whiskey joints are over.

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