Woodward’s Garden is heaven under the freeway

Hidden beneath a freeway in an old brown brick building, Woodward’s Garden nonetheless evokes the perfect Parisian restaurant — a small, unpretentious, neighborhood place run by a couple with instinctively good taste. In this case the couple happen to be chef-owner Dana Tommasino, who for 15 years has been crafting voluptuous and exciting plates, and Margie Conard, who unobtrusively waits on tables, chooses the wines and knows her customers. The two have created a haven of elevated sensibility compellingly contrasted by the gritty urban setting.

I shiver with pleasure every time I walk through the door into a small room lit by candles. I prefer to sit with my back to the large window covered with gauzy white curtains at a narrow, white linen-covered table, and a faux, horsehair banquette, so I can look at the tiny open kitchen and bar.

My eye rests on each detail: a heavily framed wood mirror; a battery of pots and pans dangling from a ceiling rack; stacks of old china; a bowl of garden roses; a plate of small red apples; slowly turning ceiling fans; beautiful ridged water tumblers. A large moody oil painting depicts the very place we are, under a concrete overpass where urban debris collects. I pull the curtain aside to get the hauntingly bleak, Hopper-esque view, illuminated by street lights. Inside, however, all is reassuring, personal, spare, a room that beckons.

Tommasino’s plates look like the room — rustic, seemingly unstructured yet gorgeous, full of texture and muted color. </p>

Smoked trout bruschetta ($11) on a blue willow plate looked like a subject for a still life. Thick slabs of buttery toast, crisp all the way through, are slathered with romesco (a paste of ground hazelnuts and smoky red pepper) and topped with big hunks of moist fish. Plenty of restaurants serve smoked trout toasts but none as luscious as these.

Standout dishes at Woodward’s Garden include, from left, sautéed halibut, smoked trout bruschetta, a colorful pork chop and porcini salad.

Tommasino’s silken Jerusalem artichoke soup ($7.75) with sliced and sauteed tubers plays with texture. Grilled porcini salad ($14) layered with shaved celery root and pecorino, and dressed with a whisper of truffle, tastes like a forest in autumn.

A bounteous plate of sauteed Alaskan halibut ($26), strewn with glazed pearl onions, fingerling potatoes and savoy cabbage glistens with beurre blanc. Each bite is symphonic. Crunchy bread crumbs give tender ravioli filled with a velvety puree of butternut squash ($19) new dimension.

The chef uses small-farm-raised meat for her juicy sliced pork chop ($25), woven with caramelized apples and shallots, the plate garnished with mashed potatoes and parsnips, and curly spinach — a holiday banquet on one plate.

Seasonal desserts ($8) now feature cranberries, satsumas, apples and quince. I fell for Tommasino’s wild huckleberry and pear galette, with her signature hard, crisp, buttery crust and a dab of creme fraiche. They may not be available much longer.

Interesting California and European wines reflect the taste of the owners. Many cost in the $30-$40 range and the flavor range of the wines matches the palette of the dishes.

The closer I get to the cooks, the growers, the producers of the food I eat, the happier I am. At Woodward’s Garden, I feel that immediacy. I could easily move into this room and permanently live in this couple’s created world — though I’m sure they’re very happy to see me leave after my long, pleasure-filled evening.

Woodward’s Garden

Margie Conard, left, and Dana Tommasino.

Location: 1700 Mission St. (at Duboce Avenue), San Francisco

Contact: (415) 621-7122, www.woodwardsgarden.com  

Hours: Tuesday through Saturday from 6 p.m., last seating at 8:30 p.m.

Price range: Starters $8.75-$14; mains $19 to $26

Recommended dishes: Smoked trout bruschetta; Jerusalem artichoke soup; grilled porcini; butternut squash ravioli; northern halibut with pearl onions; pork chop withcaramelized apples

Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa, American Express

Reservations: Accepted

Patricia Unterman is author of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide” and a newsletter, “Unterman on Food.” Contact her at pattiu@concentric.net.

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