Photo by Michael A. Gardiner
The restaurant business is notoriously fickle. Today’s empire can quickly become tomorrow’s smoking pile of rubble. And you may not even get a t-shirt to show for it (though you might just get a large tax deduction). Brian Malarkey knows this. He’s lived it. As documented in this space previously, his “Fabric of Social Dining” empire (Burlap, Searsucker, etc.) collapsed around him. And that makes Herb & Wood (2210 Kettner Boulevard) all the more impressive.
Malarkey leveraged a long run on Top Chef into a restaurant empire stretching from here to Uganda, as well as a gig on ABC’s Taste next to Anthony Bourdain and Nigella Lawson. But by then the cracks were beginning to show. The end would come within a year. From there, Malarkey’s play at redemption would be another year and a half in the future.
But what a play it is. While Herb & Wood is unmistakably a Malarkey place—big, central bar, volume level to match and a see-and-be-seen scene—there’s also a tangibly different feel. Where the Fabric of Social Dining establishments were distinctly casual, Herb & Wood has a nostalgic, almost Gatsby-era vibe.
Befitting a Malarkey place, Herb & Wood has a great drinks program led by Willem Van Leuven. Start with the Smoke & Spice cocktail (Del Maguey mezcal, Ancho Reyes chile liqueur, pineapple, agave and lime). The Gin & Lavender (lavender infused Beefeater gin, thyme-honey syrup, lemon and soda) would be a close second.
Herb & Wood’s menu is divided into seven sections that roughly correspond to salads, sea starters, small plates, vegetables, mains, pastas and pizzas. Of the “salads” the best choice is the roasted beets with burrata, sherry, walnut pesto and jamon Iberico. Malarkey’s played around with the presentations of this dish over time, and the current one may not be the best, but the flavors and textures are spot on.
Of the pastas, none is better than the gnocchi and oxtail with roasted garlic, parsley, chive, sherry, parmesan and horseradish. One of my dining companions commented she’d always wanted to like gnocchi but never before had until she tried this version. The pillowy gnocchi paired perfectly with the meaty oxtails and the touch of heat from the horseradish played perfectly against the richness of the cheese and the headiness of the sherry and herbs. Almost equally good were the agnolotti (think little ravioli) with rabbit sausage, meyer lemon, burrata and pistachios.
But nothing hit the heights of Malarkey’s speck-wrapped roasted branzino, with lemon herb stuffing and olive-chili tapenade. Branzino is the northern Italian name for a Mediterranean seabass with delicate white flesh and a mild, nearly sweet, flavor. He wraps the fish and stuffing in speck—smoked prosciutto—giving the dish a richness and roundness that’s perfectly juxtaposed with the funk of the tapenade.
The branzino dish is a perfect metaphor for Herb & Wood: dramatic more than beautiful, perfectly crafted and surprisingly confident. At the end of the day, the restaurant seems to be Brian Malarkey staring at himself in the mirror and pulling out his culinary schlong like Mark Wahlberg at the end of Boogie Nights. Malarkey, like Wahlberg, seems to be saying, “this is what I am, this is who I am,” and asking, “why did I ever pretend differently?”