| Emerald Forest Café |
12656 West Ave.
Price range: $7-$17
I suppose that a full-blown Oz operation could appeal to some diners — say fans of the 1939 movie that have made the ruby slippers one of the Smithsonian’s most popular attractions. But Emerald Forest takes the Cowardly Lion approach and bestows but a few names on burgers and posts a picture or two from the film (and their removal wouldn’t be missed). Considering that there’s not an obvious path, yellow brick or otherwise, leading to the restaurant tucked away behind El Bosque on West Avenue (it was most recently Encino Garden Grill), some seriousness about signage on the street is also required. And even the Scarecrow would know to hire evening staff with more than straw in the cranial cavity. Watch it; here comes the tornado …
The real theme of Emerald Forest’s menu is more Italy than Oz. We tested it first with the risotto bomba, often also known as suppli al telefono because when the rice balls are pulled apart, their melted-mozzarella stuffing stretches into long strings, or telephone wires. EF may have over-fried them a little, but they were nevertheless good with a punchy garlic aioli. An order of cozze en brodetto seemed small for its $7 price, but the mussels transcended a very salty wine broth. Nothing to write home to Auntie Em about, but not bad.
The real challenges began with the entrées. My bistecca Florentine arrived first — before the caprese salad we had asked to split as an interlude. Oh well; the salad did boast of fresh-tasting cheese, tomatoes, basil, and an appealing dressing of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Maybe we had too much time to contemplate the flat-iron steak while waiting for the second entrée, but tough is tough no matter when, and even marinating in EVO with rosemary and garlic couldn’t save this cut. It had been served with a mound of seriously garlic-laced mashers, no more, making for a plate in desperate need of a little relief — say a spear or two of asparagus.
But those had been reserved for the already exuberantly garnished trota de funghi, a butterflied and muddy-tasting trout topped with an avalanche of very lemony bread crumbs and served over an oddly bland mound of angel-hair pasta. Our lack of enthusiasm for both steak and fish didn’t go unnoticed, and a flurry of apologies and references to unaligned planets followed, along with two complimentary desserts.
We had reason to think these would be good: Executive Chef Chris Kidd’s background is in pastry, starting with an apprenticeship at Mark Miller’s Red Sage in Washington D.C. and continuing in San Antonio with the short-lived Mesteña in the Collection on Broadway. Kidd has also been the pastry chef at Piatti in the Quarry, and recently left the same position at Landry’s Eyes over Texas. I learned much of this from Kidd himself when he emerged from the kitchen on an afternoon visit (he hadn’t been there the first time). Having taught some cooking classes at Piatti he was inspired to “break out of the `pastry` bubble and go from cold to hot.” But, he admitted, they were now in a transitional period — after the Oz-like euphoria of opening curiosity and before building a real audience back in Kansas. Er, Texas.
Kidd does have plans that include baking the buns in-house for the burgers (he already makes the focaccia for the panini). Good; the bun was the only weak link in the Tin Man with 8 ounces of well-seasoned Angus, caramelized red onion, and blue cheese. The artichoke dip with spinach I had spurned previously turned out to be fine and extremely cheesy and creamy. And the afternoon service was contrastingly competent.
Yes, I left a lot on the table again, but only because I ordered too much. And still I was sent home with more desserts. Here’s that report: tiramisu, one of the best I’ve had in town; marble cake, moist and yummy; warm chocolate cake with melted chocolate sauce, obscenely large but worth attacking; crème brûlée, good sugar crust but a little plain.
And to prove that this Tin Man has a heart, I’m going to suggest we stick with Emerald Forest through the rough patch to see if Dorothy (the owner does have that look about her) and Toto can fend off the flying monkeys. All together now, click those slippers …