Mason is a kind of restaurant treasure hunt. Between the chains in enormous shopping complexes is some of the best and most unusual ethnic food in the city. So I was excited to try Woodhouse, which bills itself online as a Russian-American kitchen and bar. To quote Kachka: A Return to Russian Cooking, an excellent cookbook based on cuisine from the former Soviet Union, “When most people think of Russian food, they go blank. They think of borsch—if they think of anything at all.”
I, too, drew a blank. Regions of world cuisine that are terra incognita are exciting. They add to our sense of culinary possibilities even if we can’t quite assimilate the experience at first. Woodhouse, however, is all too easy to assimilate. I wish it were stranger than it is. I want to begin this review with my sense of eagerness, though, because it hints at what Woodhouse could be if it embraces a genuine sense of identity. There is a big blank space in our landscape for Russian food, but barring a few regional standouts, its menu is dominated by predictable Italian and American fare that is pretty good but nothing special.
Located next to The Beach Waterpark, this is an unusual place (previously a Bob Evans) to have a fine dining establishment, but the atmosphere is cozy and enveloping. A fine dining restaurant needs to cast a certain spell: You are paying for the food, of course, but also for the sense of being truly served and cared for. Any spell that Woodhouse might have cast was immediately broken by the absence of a host at the front of the house…for a while. On both visits, we just waited, wondering what to do next.
This set the tone for the meal. Servers often seemed inexperienced or entirely untrained. When I asked, for example, what was on the charcuterie board, the reply was a blank look, followed by, “Yeah, I don’t know.” Nor did the server ever go and find out.
This mysterious charcuterie board can serve as representation of what is and isn’t working at Woodhouse. First, the food that actually seems to be Russian-inspired is pretty good, but there isn’t much of it. The pickled beets and a creamy beet dip—both surprisingly pungent and spicy—were unusual and delicious. The rest of the board, though, like Woodhouse’s entire menu, was overstuffed, and often with totally discordant flavors. Why is sour kimchi liquid pooling next to sweet membrillo (quince) paste, ruining the latter, and why bother serving what appears to be packaged, presliced meat? Woodhouse would do well to feature only housemade food or ingredients from sources more exotic than the grocery store (their “gelato of the day,” for example, turned out to be Graeter’s black raspberry chip ice cream, for $6).
If you gamble on Woodhouse, my advice would be to try the Russian(ish) stuff. The wood-roasted beetroot salad is quite good, with beautiful golden beets, lively and citrusy, with a hint of honey and pepper and some pleasant crunch from shaved Brussels sprouts. The samsa (an Uzbek samosa) has a nice, flaky crust, and a ground beef (cooked in lamb fat) filling with curry flavors. The chicken tabaka, which involves cooking a flattened bird under a heavy weight to ensure even cooking, is moist and satisfying, with nice notes of lemon and parsley. The pierogi were tasty, with a luscious saffron cream. Like the enormous Russian border, which presses against so many different cultures, the dish hints at the influences that have entered this cuisine from surrounding regions.
You should also try the wine: Pours are generous, and the bottle prices are extremely reasonable. We had a nice bottle of Carol Shelton Wild Thing Zinfandel, recommended by the sommelier, who seemed to be one of the few people in the restaurant excited to connect diners with what was on the menu.
Mostly, though, the kitchen and service chug along at the level of OK. Roasted Brussels sprouts are flavorless and come swimming in oil. Deviled eggs feel long refrigerated, with a strangely chalky piece of fried Parmesan. Gnocchi, despite a memorable spicy shiitake sauce, are overlarge and have a dense, pasty texture. And the day’s special risotto had none of the creamy starchiness of properly made risotto and was completely missing the crispy baby broccoli promised on the menu. Despite its decent food, there is frankly some carelessness at Woodhouse, from the missing host to a fancy tap in the bathroom that barely dribbled water.
A beautiful antique samovar sits on the divider above one of Woodhouse’s booths. As I looked at it, I couldn’t help imagining a very different kind of establishment. Instead of only using them as decor, why not bring one down and serve the traditional meal-ending Russian tea, maybe with some apple ponchiki (Russian doughnut holes) instead of Graeter’s ice cream? Cover your charcuterie board with marinated mushrooms, infuse your vodka with seaberry, or hand wrap some golubtsi (cabbage rolls)—in short, do something soulful and genuinely Russian; something that would make a person want to grab a friend and say, “Hey, let me tell you about this amazing restaurant way out by The Beach.” That’s not the case right now, but maybe it can be.
Woodhouse Kitchen + Bar, 2629 Water Park Dr., Mason, (513) 466-8170, WoodHouseKitchenBar.com