Eat & Drink

Pleasantville

The Wooden Table is simple and unpretentious—sometimes to a fault.

June 2012

The Wooden Table, 2500 E. Orchard Road, Greenwood Village, 303-730-2152, thewoodentablerestaurant.com 

-2 1/2 stars-

The Draw A low-key Greenwood Village restaurant whose Italian-influenced menu goes beyond stereotypical suburban fare. 

The Drawback The pasta dishes are impressive, but the entrées lack finesse.

Don’t Miss Frutti di mare crudo, chicken liver mousse crostini, gnocchi in lobster brodo, lamb and goat cheese agnolotti. 

Price: $$$ (Average price per entrée: $26)

Food: 2 1/2 stars

Service: 2 1/2 stars

Ambience: 2 1/2 stars

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In almost every way, the Wooden Table is a nice restaurant. The servers are polite and attentive. The mostly Italian menu is approachable. Parking is easy. And the small space—with its cream walls and framed black-and-white photos—is pleasant, if a bit nondescript. It’s the kind of agreeable place you’d expect to find in the leafy heart of suburban Greenwood Village. There’s no edge, no angst, no ego—which is exactly what the owners intended. 

Chef and co-owner Brett Shaheen, 36, is a veteran of downtown restaurants, having most recently worked the burners as executive chef at Osteria Marco and, before that, as chef de cuisine at Luca D’Italia. In moving to the suburbs, Shaheen, along with his business partner, Jane Knauf, whom he met years ago working at the now-shuttered Sambuca, wanted to create a simple, unpretentious dining experience with a menu that wasn’t fancy or showy. “We both live in the suburbs,” Shaheen says, “and got sick of the fact there was nowhere good to eat.” Together, they decided the Wooden Table would offer suburbanites what they typically have to drive downtown for: good food made from scratch.

Unfortunately, that goal may have been too modest to create a memorable, must-return dining experience.

The ambience, for starters, lacks energy. The strip-mall space consists of a single room dotted with square wooden tables. When those tables are full, the atmosphere is congenial. But come early or on a slow night, and you may hunger for more vibrancy. For the best experience, reserve the large table (crafted out of myrtle wood; it’s the restaurant’s namesake) in the center of the room and fill it with friends.

The cocktails also needed more punch—not because they were in need of alcohol, but because they lacked the zing we’ve come to expect in the contemporary cocktail era. Although the Wooden Table list includes the expected bourbons, bitters, and infusions, the drinks themselves were lifeless. “Are there really blackberries in here?” asked a friend after sipping an old fashioned cocktail advertised with muddled blackberries. “I mean, the color is right, but….”

Salads are similarly inadequate. They’re not bad; they’re just not great. The prosciutto di Parma arrived as a large, flat slice of prosciutto ringed by a balsamic reduction and topped by a tumble of arugula, shaved fennel, pear slices, candied walnuts, and thin pecorino shavings. The problem? The chewy cured meat and tangy vinaigrette nudged out the other flavors. An arugula salad tossed with truffled vinaigrette, on the other hand, was underdressed (something that almost never happens when truffle oil is involved). The addition of fried oyster mushrooms provided a pleasing, crunchy counterpoint, but not enough to make up for the overall lack of pizzazz. 

Two of the appetizers make a stronger start. The first is the frutti di mare crudo, a cool and lovely mixture of marinated baby octopus, shrimp, and scallops mixed with a light chile oil and tonnato (tuna aïoli). The tender, fresh seafood and exquisite balance of sweet, heat, and sour will immediately prompt a craving for seconds. The creamy quenelles of chicken liver mousse served atop crostini are similarly rewarding. The mousse is silky, just as you’d expect, but Shaheen’s version has more flavor than most thanks to the addition of herbs, anchovies, capers, and a garnish of pickled red chile peppers.

The eggplant Parmesan rollatini appetizer pales next to these dishes. Although the plating is impressive—all of Shaheen’s dishes are beautifully arranged—the sweet, chunky tomato sauce was not bold enough to compensate for the virtually tasteless fried eggplant.

Pasta is where Shaheen’s talent is most obviously on display—which makes sense, given his three-plus-year history at Luca D’Italia, one of Denver’s top Italian restaurants. His tender agnolotti is stuffed with tangy, melted goat cheese and served in a savory stew of braised lamb and roasted red peppers. The rich dish tiptoes toward the edge of too much without going over the line, allowing you to enjoy its intensity
in between palate-cleansing sips of Terredora, a full-bodied Italian red from the Campania region.

The potato gnocchi, served with a fragrant and buttery lobster “brodo” is also striking. The broth, dotted with juicy buttons of poached lobster, provides the ideal counterpoint to the light gnocchi. Another on the must-have list is Shaheen’s tortellini—fat straightjackets of eggy pasta folded around a shrimp and browned butter filling. The dish provides a stunning example of the al dente art form, and there’s just enough of the accompanying crab-tomato sauce to enliven the pasta without overwhelming it.

But the confidence Shaheen demonstrates in his pasta dishes is lacking in the entrées. Although he attempts to combine taste and texture in interesting ways—e.g., tender sausage with crispy polenta—each entrée contained at least one ingredient that was irrelevant, superfluous, or just plain confusing. The sausage entrée, for example, was nicely spicy and wholly satisfying on its own. But the addition of braised chicken cacciatore seemed odd and unnecessary, and the polenta cake was dry and distracting. The grilled beef tenderloin was outdone by the succulent pieces of short rib, of which there weren’t enough. (The addition of a Gorgonzola potato croquette didn’t help matters, since there wasn’t enough cheese to leave an impression.) Shaheen’s strategy seemed based on compensation—where one flavor or texture makes up for a lack somewhere else—rather than companionship, where flavors and textures walk hand in hand.

Shaheen and Knauf’s lack of ego and simple aspirations for the Wooden Table are admirable, but more ego would naturally lead to more confidence—which is what this place needs. The simple decor would benefit from a few bold design statements; the cocktails would be improved by more decisive pours; the entrées would benefit from more self-assured flavoring. Combined, the partners have more than 20 years of restaurant experience, and yet the Wooden Table comes across as timid and unsure of itself. While it may not be considered polite to assert yourself, aiming for nice and simple leaves many diners—myself included—wanting.