Restaurant Review: The Woodland, Lakeville

The Woodland's ethereal coconut cream pie.

The Woodland's ethereal coconut cream pie.

★★½ [Very Good-Superior]

A sheaf of White Emperor lilies greets us in the vestibule. We step inside. Tall branches of flowering cherry fill a corner of the room with a haze of pale pink blooms. Bold floral statements so picture-perfect we can’t believe they’re real—but they are. As is the Oriental rug on the floor, its colors glowing like jewels in pools of light that fall apparently at random but are artfully positioned to illuminate our path, our table, the menu and our food when it arrives, while the rest of the room remains discreetly and romantically in shadow.

If I sound rapt, it’s because I am. For years I’ve been hearing about The Woodland but this is my first visit. I’m not sure what I expected. A log cabin in the wilderness?

The Woodland is not that. Nor is it a grand old country inn. It is, however, precisely what its fiercely loyal fan base wants it to be and, I quickly discover, worth a trip from anywhere for the rest of us. Determinedly unpretentious, exquisitely stylish in a friendly, low-key way, The Woodland is what it is by popular demand.We may be in the country but we’re not in Kansas. There’s a chef and a sushi chef and a menu that suggests we’re on a round-the-world cruise with an idiosyncratic sail plan and unlimited excursions ashore. Sushi, sashimi, pizza, guacamole, tagliatelle, steak tartare, vegetable tempura . . . stop, already. Mouths watering, we dive in.

Starting with the sushi menu, we order the eponymous Special Woodland Roll, with Cajun tuna, smoked salmon and sprouts, which sounds odd but turns out to be surprisingly good. Both fish are brilliantly spiced and set each other off beautifully. A few long, wispy sprouts, probably alfalfa, fringe the roll with a taste of green.    

While restaurants of every stripe are getting their kitchens in a twist trying to present everything in small-plate format, The Woodland calmly proffers Appetizers, Salads, Entrées and Desserts. Many of the appetizers are hearty enough to qualify as small plates. For example, thick, rosy slices of medium-rare filet of beef tinged with char fill the mouth with the taste and memory of campfire cookery. Zingy ginger dipping sauce is served alongside. Tagliatelle with wild mushrooms, thyme and Parmesan Reggiano, richly flavorful and totally irresistible, arrives in a baking dish virtually begging to be shared.

With starters like these if you want less than a four-course meal, all you need is a salad. “Asian spinach” is especially good, a perky jumble of fresh spinach, sprouts, onions and wild mushrooms, with grated daikon on top. Just don’t ask me what gives the vinaigrette dressing that special sparkle. All I can get from our waitress, who says it’s all she can get from the chef, is “Asian spices.” Ah, the mysterious East.

To come here for a few light bites is fun but to do so would be to miss a lot because, unlike at some restaurants, things don’t fall apart when it comes to entrées. At The Woodland, they’re interesting and numerous—13 on the regular menu, 10 on a list of specials that changes every day.

We try to stick to the regular menu, but a big, thick veal chop sails by on the way to another table and we have to have one. Juicy, medium-rare, it’s laved with a lovely au jus-based sauce perhaps enriched with the decidedly woodsy flavor of wild mushrooms. Sides aren’t listed because entrées come with a full complement of vegetables and starch—butternut squash and mashed potatoes for the veal chop. There are a few duplications but enough variety to keep things interesting. A pork chop comes with polenta, sliced hanger steak comes with sautéed spinach and house fries, and seared tuna arrives in a pretty coat of white sesame seeds, atop a bed of baby bok choy sautéed so gently it’s still vibrantly green and slightly crisp. With spicy aioli decoratively dribbled, all it needs is what it’s got—a mound of perfectly cooked white rice.

I can’t say the same for the BBQ spare ribs. With or without barbecue sauce (which is sparse), they are not smoky enough, spicy enough, juicy enough or tender enough to be persuaded (even with the help of a knife) to fall off the bone. What is it with these ribs? Are they a one-time goof, or do Woodlanders like them this way?

It’s a mystery we leave unsolved and move on to steak tartare, a dish that’s been on and off menus for ages. Vegetarians may quake but in France in Brillat-Savarin’s day it was thought that the quickest, easiest way for the pale and ailing to absorb all the minerals and vitamins in a piece of beef was to chop it up and eat it raw. Of course, Parisian chefs couldn’t bear to leave it like that. First, they added parsley, chives or dill, and then—attention, mes amis—to make it more nourishing they broke an egg and slipped the yolk into a dent in the meat mixture, covered it up, and voilà, a clever surprise, a golden treat.

The Woodland’s steak tartare hides no golden surprises, but the meat is excellent, coarsely chopped and the right shade of red. (Too many spices or exposure to air can turn meat gray.) Served as an entrée, there’s enough to please Henry VIII.

The dessert list would knock his eyes out. Pecan pie, Key lime pie, rum-raisin rice pudding, root beer float, apple crisp, warm chocolate cake—14 temptations in all, with an à la mode option of Great Barrington’s SoCo Creamery ice cream. The coconut-cream pie is sumptuous, and the root beer nostalgic. Bananas Foster isn’t flamed but the hot fudge parfait is to be a kid again.

Plus, the adult dessert wine list includes a 1929 Tesseron Cognac X.O. Exception—at $90 a glass—awarded 100 points by Robert Parker, and described as “about as ethereal as anyone could ever hope to drink.”

I consult my notes: “Sushi, who’d have thought?” “Rustic for sophisticates.” Large portions, generous pours, good service. Local favorite. Reserve well in advance.”

The Woodland
192 Sharon Rd., Lakeville, 860/435-0578,
Lunch Tuesday through Saturday 11:30 to 2:30. Dinner Tuesday through Thursday 5 to 9, Friday and Saturday till 10:15, Sunday 4 to 8:30. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $7 to $11, entrées $14 to $32, desserts $6 to $9.

Restaurant Review: The Woodland, Lakeville

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