The Woodland

Opened in the waning hours of 2006, it's housed in the site formerly occupied by the restaurant 7. And Lamberts. And Liberty Pie.

The Woodland
Photo By John Anderson

The Woodland

1716 S. Congress, 441-6800,

Tuesday-Sunday, 5-11pm; Sunday brunch, 10am-3pm

In the middle of the Woodland stands a tree. It's not real, but its unlikely presence is nonetheless impressive. It's a bold design statement, yet one that suggests a certain serenity. This mix is reflected in every aspect of the Woodland.

Opened in the waning hours of 2006, the Woodland is housed in the site formerly occupied by the restaurant 7. And Lamberts. And Liberty Pie. South Congress might have been a viable restaurant row for only a decade or so, but that's long enough to have seen a significant turnover in tenants. The U-shaped dining room has been outfitted in soothing greens, from the shingled walls in a variety of green hues to the soft-green ceiling. Taking his inspiration from the name of the building embedded in the concrete dating from the first half of the 20th century, owner Michael Terrazas decided to take the name and run with it. The hanging light fixtures and sconces are fashioned into branches and tree silhouettes. An enormous cubist painting of a tree dominates one wall, while the front takes advantage of the scenic foot traffic with large windows facing South Congress.

The menu of classic and familiar foods evokes the same serenity as the woodsy decor. Burgers, salads, meat loaf, and even the seldom-seen pot pies are featured. As are roast chicken, pork chops, New York strip, and a rich vegetarian mushroom Alfredo. A menu of such familiar terrain better do something special to make it stand out from other comfort-food joints, and the Woodland does just that by preparing the food exceptionally well and with a sophisticated flair.

Our beginners of pork empanadas ($7) consisted of succulent pulled pork enveloped in flaky, crunchy pastry. Playing against the richly filled pastry is the simple and cool salad of frizzled cilantro coleslaw. From the fryer, we enjoyed lovely, crisp onion rings ($4) sans grease and equally well-fried french fries ($3) that were liberally, but not overly, seasoned. Our favorites from the fry patch, though, were the feather-light corn fritters ($5). Lightened with whipped egg whites, the fritters were accompanied by a spicy cayenne-pepper sauce.

Lovely salads include the Woodland Salad ($6) with roasted beets, chickpeas, and sunflower sprouts. In lesser hands, it could resemble a mix up from the salad bar of canned delights, but with the ricotta and balsamic vinaigrette, it's original and delicious. Winning as many fans in our group was the hearty spinach frisée salad ($7) with bacon, blue cheese, and buttermilk dressing.

We've made an extensive tour of the entrée menu, including the pork chop ($18), roasted chicken ($13), New York strip ($19), black drum ($15), meat loaf ($12), chicken pot pie ($9), and wild mushroom Alfredo ($10). None disappointed, and the pork chop was the most succulent we've had in some time. A marinated, bone-in chop was brushed with a sweet glaze and grilled until just cooked but still juicy. As it's a casual place, we felt at liberty to pick up the bone and gnaw at the clinging meat. The roasted chicken has an original spin: Thighs alone are roasted and run under a broiler producing a crispy skin and juicy interior. The meat loaf has already attracted a devoted following with its flavorful beef and rough tomato sauce. The sides are as simple and well-prepared as the entrées. Seldom seen cauliflower is made sweet by gentle roasting, wilted winter greens maintain their body, and green beans are cooked enough to release their flavor without completely losing their texture. A friend swears the mashed potatoes have crack in them: They're that habit-forming.

Pies galore beckon from behind the case on prominent display as you enter. To date we've sampled the apple, coconut cream, peanut butter, and chocolate. And the chocolate cake. Oh. My. Lord. Flaky and buttery pastry provides the base for each of these treats, the kind obtained through minimal handling and maximum expertise. If we had to choose one, and we're glad we don't, we probably would have to go with the peanut butter. It's the most seductive, complex take on a Reese's cup we've ever sampled. Fluffy peanut-butter filling is topped with a smooth, dark-chocolate ganache and housed in the flaky pastry crust.

The smart menu is matched by an equally smart cocktail selection, back after a temporary shutdown due to license issues. The bar is manned by mixologists who take their work seriously and deliver carefully made cocktails. Our martini came ice-cold, well-mixed, and dirty as requested. The French '75 ($8), an unlikely concoction of gin and Champagne, provided a festive touch to a birthday dinner, and their take on the now-ubiquitous mojito, here dubbed Grace & Moxie ($7), featured ruby-red-grapefruit vodka and a splash of tonic for a bracing, crisp drink.

Dining options abound on South Congress, and from the looks of the crowds gathered at each of them, there is plenty of business to go around. Thanks to its casual yet stylish surroundings and familiar yet elevated fare, we expect the Woodland to stay as steady as the tree that anchors the dining room.

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