Years ago, well before cigarette smokers were forced to take their leprosy to the gutter, the American grill was an unpretentious place of hearty food washed down unapologetically with frothy brew. Steaks untrimmed of gristle. Burgers fat, pink and weeping greasy ooze. Pork with no pink and no "sustainable" upbringing. Live-caught fish, fried. Tables fitfully wiped.
Now grills are meticulously tailored, smooth and urbane. Dishes are convened with the eye of a makeup artist, streaks of mango puree here for highlights, a vein of balsamic there for shading around the flank steak—metrosexuality on a plate. It's enough to make you yearn for the roughened edges and smoky heft of the classic American grills of yore and dishes with intermittent and unexpected streaks of liveliness.
This is not to say that a grill done up in silks can't be spellbinding. It's just that there must be discernible logic to the grooming; otherwise it's just a series of poses that become distractions.
So, there is logic to the Woodlands Grill menu. The space itself was inspired by Fallingwater House, among architect Frank Lloyd Wright's most successful achievements. Designed in 1935 as a rural Pennsylvania residence for Edgar J. Kaufman, founder of Kaufman department stores, Fallingwater was built over a waterfall, with gentle torrents flowing underneath the house. Stone and boulders collected from the surrounding landscape were incorporated into the structure. Thus Woodlands Grill is heavily laden with stacks of flat rock. Wood paneling trims the walls while hardwood planks interlock underfoot. Walls are cream. Expansive windows up front afford views of the rolling strip mall acreage across Forest Lane. A glass water wall dribbles at the entrance, harking back to the percolating spill under Fallingwater.
In a sense, Woodlands' kitchen attempts to mimic this combination of clean geometric flow and circuitous weave on the plate. Tuna tartare—now as ubiquitous in restaurants as the crab cake—is served on a long rectangular plate with sloped edges. A rectangular berm of chopped fish topped with coils of radish is juxtaposed with a dab of avocado puree from which flows a ribbon of pureed passion fruit. Small sheets of yuzo orange gelatin are embedded in the tuna mound, a motley aggregation of wonderful, sinuous strips of meat—rather than ground flesh, which makes it cumbersome to spread on the crisp lavash served in a paper cone. This is a loose tangle of distractions that never coalesce on the palate.
Likewise, it's hard to swallow that a peachy bright cedar plank salmon, crowned in crushed macadamia nuts and sided with an apple fennel salad and ale-brazed barley could be drab. It's also hard to see how a cleanly grilled slab of salmon spritzed with lemon and nosing into a pile of greens and roasted peppers seeded with fried capers and pine nuts could be insipid. But the pink meat in each case is spongy, listless and bereft of engaging flavors. After one bite, you'll discover a lust for the simply grilled salmon at Macaroni Grill.
Fried calamari—body rings (no tentacles) dressed in tempura batter—was ribboned with creamy jalapeño lime dressing and interspersed with pieces of pineapple, papaya, passion fruit and mango all packed into a bamboo steamer, floppy banana leaves draped over the sides to amplify the tropical motif. The tempura is soft and gummed and grainy instead of crisp. It's flavorless, as if the squid had been battered with wet chalk.
When Woodlands dispenses with such gimmickry it still can be rickety. The French-cut pork chop, fennel apple compote at its side, fingerling potatoes underneath, is gray and dry and near flavorless.
A bowl of spinach pesto campanelle with grilled shrimp is sticky and listless despite attempts to stir it beyond the morose with a few yellow pear tomato halves, roasted peppers and a debris field of pecans and Parmesan along with dry and fibrous grilled shrimp.
Contrast this with the shrimp cocktail, five shrimp as thick as linebacker thumbs hooked to the edges of an icy glass filled with cocktail sauce with shredded horseradish root: firm, succulent, delicious.
East Coast mussels—a bowl of shellfish huddling in a pool of white wine, butter and lemon flecked with herbs, garlic and shallots—are clean, firm and succulent, but they're coupled with dry, rubbery slices of grilled toast, which can only be partially resuscitated with a drag through the broth.
Grilled prime rib, served only on weekends, is billed as a dish of special Woodlands significance. It's a dark, motley slab, with none of the pink silkiness or flowing juices that make prime rib so arousing. Squiggles of creamy horseradish sauce are woven over the meat like icing. A mound of creamy mashed potatoes rests underneath.
The most successful entrant on this posh grill menu is the Woodlands cheddar bison burger. It's rich and juicy and thick. It flaunts a slightly gamy edge sewn through the rivulets of juice that flow easily from the meat. It's packed into a thick, fluffy brioche with sweet potato fries to beef up the carb count.
Conclude with a brisk honey-lemon granita with blackberries and raspberries, a sort of snow cone. Also worthy is the Woodlands fresh-squeezed lemonade, good for washing down salmon.
Service is officious and aloof. You'll fritter away gaps of time flagging down drink refills, dessert menus, and the check—perhaps the inevitable result of snooting up the classic grills.
Woodlands is a Jack Baum (founder of Canyon Restaurant group and Newport's) composition, part of his restaurant management firm Food, Friends and Company that operates Cozymel's. Woodlands has spread to Bollingbrook, Illinois; Westminster, Colorado; and to Allen, come next month. And this wanna-be upscaled Houston's would make a perfect neighborhood haunt if it would just drink in a little earthy neighborliness.
6073 Forest Lane, 972-239-2024. Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday & Saturday. $$-$$$
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