Sunday, February 25, 2024

Squid ink bucatini & whole fish: Wood & Salt in Long Beach returns roots

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“Wood & Salt is a neighborhood joint in Long Beach—we are one big community here, let’s be honest. We believed what we missed here over the past few months was what we wanted to achieve all along from the get-go: approachable, but higher-quality food featuring pastas on the one side and the wood-fired meats and fishes on the other. That’s why we’re returning back to parts of the menu we had in the beginning.”

These are the words of Wood & Salt Tavern owner Bjöern Risse describing their revamped menu, which marks a full return to the restaurant’s stellar debut menu and roots, where squid ink bucatini sits next to whole wood-fired dorade.

Wood & Salt in Long Beach notices the changes they’ve made aren’t what is needed to move forward

The admission is not an easy one to make, be it for a restaurateur or a chef—to stand back and see that something is missing, off-putting, or downright not working—takes a serious level of both humility and risk, the former requires self-reflection, and the latter demands the strength and patience to completely overhaul a restaurant.

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“For me, it’s always important to have elevated food but as approachable as possible. I don’t want Wood & Salt to be the space where people visit once a year for a special occasion. I want it to be the spot where, on a Tuesday night, you come in because you don’t feel like cooking.”

This irony, of course, is the struggle for any creative individual—and that certainly rings true for any creative in the culinary industry.

There’s the thought behind the aesthetic of the space itself–Wood & Salt’s warm, tile-lined bar, paired with the charming stack of chopped hickory wood used as both an interior touch to the decor and the distinct smell of it being burned for food prep that greets you upon arrival. Of particular note, the bathroom is home to some of the most spectacular wallpaper to ever grace a restroom. Surreal tropical animals–flamingos with giraffe necks, elephant-monkey hybrids…

There’s the thought behind the aesthetic of the plating—the beautiful, Bohemian mélange of dishware that was handpicked to pair with the food.

This is all in addition to the food and cocktails themselves, and it is very easy to–in the words of Risse–fall into a trap where overthinking and over-trying becomes the norm.

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“To be honest, I think we tried a little too hard,” Risse said. “For example, I was a little confused when we won Best Steakhouse [in a local publication contest] recently—it was a clear sign that people didn’t know who or what we are. And I think it is important, especially in a community as tight-knit as Long Beach, to assure both ourselves and patrons that our identity is on solid ground.”

A spread at Wood & Salt. Photo by Brian Addison.
A spread at Wood & Salt. Photo by Brian Addison.

What does a ‘return to roots’ even mean for Wood & Salt?

With Wood & Salt’s return to its inaugural menu, there should be little confusion as to what it aims to identify as—a seasonally driven, Italian-meets-Californian sensibility to its plates, all surrounding hand-made pastas and wood-fire licked fishes and proteins.

There’s the return of the starters that, well, started it all—including their wonderfully salty, surprisingly delicious, deep-fried olives stuffed with ‘nduja salami.

There’s the return of the tagliatelle—a romantic pasta if there ever was one, with its sleek, thin-and-wide strips enveloping sauces and palates—with its triple-meat ragú. Bits of ground beef, pork, and veal are delicately layered between masterfully thinned out ribbons of house made tagliatelle. The result? An alluringly sexy pasta dish.

The wood fire-grilled whole dorade with Sicilian caponata and olive tapenade from Wood & Salt. Photo by Brian Addison.
The wood fire-grilled whole dorade with Sicilian caponata and olive tapenade from Wood & Salt. Photo by Brian Addison.

There’s the famed gnocchi of Wood & Salt’s opening, where Aruzzi rye grown in the Tehachapi Mountains is mixed in with the potato, giving it a nutty quality that separates it from a more traditional potato gnocchi. Layered with Tuscan kale and ragú made from wood-fired smoked chicken, it is easily one of the city’s best pasta dishes.

There’s the return of their squid ink pasta, this time in the form of bucatini that replaces the original spaghetti—glistening black strips steeped deep in the ink, imbuing the pasta with an earthy-meets-briny quality—that is beautifully contrasted with braised calamari and a spicy red sauce.

All of these pasta dishes are of course showered with a worthy heaping of Grana Padano, a touch that gets a tip of the hat from any cheese connoisseur.

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There’s the return of hefty seafood entrees—from a beautifully seared, whole dorade to a grilled filet of Alaskan halibut. Or the massive chunk of whiskey-braised short ribs doused with grated fresh horseradish and sitting atop a heap of braised cabbage. This is one of the dishes that most deviates from Italian and pivots to a California-meets-German cuisine—though Risse insists with a laugh, “Wood & Salt will not be a sister to Rasselbock [my other restaurant]-that plate is about as German as any dish will get here at Wood & Salt.”

A carrot-cinnamon bourbon sour sits in front of a plate of fried and stuffed squash blossoms from Wood & Salt. Photo by Brian Addison.
A carrot-cinnamon bourbon sour sits in front of a plate of fried and stuffed squash blossoms from Wood & Salt. Photo by Brian Addison.

“It’s funny to reflect on how simple it all really is,” Risse said. “Great handmade pastas, the freshest fish, poultry, and meats we can grill over the wood fire, and seasonal items for our starters and salads. Pair this with great service and a great cocktail program, and you see how the identity of Wood & Salt really returns to its roots.”

This also means a return to Wood & Salt representing one of the best cocktail programs in Long Beach

That cocktail program—one of the best in the city and headed by bar manager Gabriel Ducharme—is one that should not easily be dismissed, with cocktail dinners becoming more regular and a masterful, rotating cocktail list becoming the norm.

“I like to call myself a People’s Bartender more than a Mixologist’s Bartender,” Ducharme said, reflecting Wood & Salt’s mantra of being elevated but approachable. “I make drinks with depth and complexity, but I like to make drinks that are for everyone. I don’t mind recreating the wheel and being innovative, but I don’t think everyone is seeking that kind of drink.”

Ducharme’s entry into cocktails was anything but glamorous, having served as a barback at Long Beach’s Naples Rib Company and being thrown into the bartending position blindly one night. Though stressful, it inspired him to where he is today, with Wood & Salt’s cocktail menu having pineapple-basil lemon drops and strawberry-peach margaritas sitting next to vegan Oaxacan sours and in-house barrel-aged Manhattans.

The fried olives, stuffed with n'duja salami and topped with lemon aioli from Wood & Salt. Photo by Brian Addison.
The fried olives, stuffed with n’duja salami and topped with lemon aioli from Wood & Salt. Photo by Brian Addison.

And while his approach may seem accessible, Ducharme’s cocktail dinners are anything but basic nor compulsively arranged—which distinctly separates Wood & Salt from the all-too-common wine dinners.

From the get-go, Ducharme will pick a particular spirit—tequila, rum, gin, etc.—and decide whether to stick to a particular brand that offers several versions of that spirit or offer a variety of brands. Then he works side-by-side with the kitchen, sharing a group note where people can add their own suggestions and coordinate.

Ducharme has created a rubric that cascades easily across the dinner–open with an aperitif-centric cocktail to tantalize the palate, proceed with a citrus-forward or refreshing cocktail for round two, savory and deeper flavors for round three, and then cap it off with a classic, prohibition-style drink for dessert.

The result? One of the city’s most intriguing and unique dinner series. Keep a lookout for their next cocktail dinner on June 14 when the focus will be rum.

And for those unable to do the cocktail dinners, you can still experience the blend of Wood & Salt’s return to form and Ducharme’s exquisite taste in libations by simply ordering a plate from the menu and pairing it with a drink from their signature cocktail list. The end result will be comforting, and it will leave you wanting to come back for more.

Wood & Salt Tavern is located in Bixby Knolls at 4262 Atlantic Ave.

Brian Addison
Brian Addison
Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 25 nominations and three additional wins. In 2019, he was awarded the Food/Culture Critic of the Year across any platform at the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards.

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