Report: WoodSpoon in Downtown w/photos
Photos can be seen here: http://nochoiceatall.blogspot.com/2008/07/woodspoon.html
WoodSpoon (107 W. 9th Street) is a relatively new spot in Downtown LA's fashion district. In the year and a half that it has been open, it has quickly become the heart of Brazilian culture in downtown. But this isn't your typical Americanized Brazilian eats place. For one thing, it isn't a churrascaria. Though the menu does feature a "Brazilian Grill" section, it isn't all you can eat and the grill items are served with very traditional accompaniments - black beans, plantains, collards and farofa (toasted manioc flour, which is more popularly known as cassava). Rather, WoodSpoon is more an example of homestyle regional Brazilian cooking - the region being Minas Gerais, a state in Southeastern Brazil.
According to frequent Chowhound contributor StreetGourmetLA, Minas Gerais is home to the best cachaca in Brazil, the sumptuous cheese that all of Brazil uses in Pao de Quiejo (cheesebread), and a variety of uniquely original and creative dishes that occupy a place in Brazilian cuisine similar to the place cajun and creole dishes from New Orleans have here in the US. WoodSpoon's chef, Natalia Pereira, is originally from the town of Betim in Minas Gerais.
Traditional Mineiran recipes represent an amalgam of Portuguese, African and Native Indian cultures, employing chicken, pork, beans, corn and other vegetables, commonly raised and grown in the back yards. The most common method of preparation in the region involves using a wood stove, which lends a great deal of flavor to the food.
The restaurant itself is very sparsely decorated. It is a small storefront with sunflowers in the windows and very high ceilings. The front wall and the two side walls are painted white, while the back wall, with the entrance to the kitchen, is a dark brown. The tables and benches are the color of pine and each table has a small white vase with flowers. There even a a few recycled chairs thrown in for color.
As far as I can tell, WoodSpoon doesn't have a beer or wine license, but they make up for the lack of alcohol with some creative fresh squeezed juices, like strawberry limeade (photo on left below) and orange mango. They also have what Jonathan Gold calls the "best tap water in town: triple-filtered, no doubt, served sharply cool, and flavored with whole cinnamon sticks, which give the water a delicate fragrance and tint it the color of dilute oolong tea."
For our first course, we ordered the Pastel Portuguese, which were described as fried dumplings filled with diced shrimp and coconut sauce. They were cooked very well; nice and crispy but not greasy at all. The dumplings had a bright shrimp flavor and the sweetness of the shrimp was highlighted by the creamy coconut sauce. On the side, the chef served what seemed like a spicy herb flavored mayonnaise. It complemented the dumplings well and provided a good bit of heat.
From there, we dove into a few of the house "favorites." When we were first going over the menu, I have to admit that we were a little taken aback. The house favorites were a pork burger and a chicken pot pie. These are dishes that could be just at home at a country diner in Newton, Iowa as they are here at WoodSpoon. Not to worry, in the chef's hands, these are Brazilian dishes through and through.
The pork burger was delicious. The meat was well seasoned and cooked perfectly, which left it very juicy. The rough mouth feel of the patty made me think the pork was actually hand cut/ground back in the kitchen, but I could be wrong. The burger itself had a nice crust from being well seared and it had a very rich porky flavor. It was topped with roasted cabbage and onion and served on a toasted potato bun. For a side dish, you are given a choice of yam fries or a very simple mixed green salad. I went with the salad, but I want to go back and try the fries.
The chicken pot pie is another fun dish. The handmade crust turns a rich golden brown and cracks under the heat of the oven. It tastes a lot like the crust from a baked empanada and it wouldn't surprise me if that or something similar formed the inspiration for this dish. The pie, itself, is filled with shredded chicken, hearts of palm, olives and roasted corn, all coated in a rich cream sauce. It is served with a side salad and makes for a very nice lunch, even on a warm summer day. Get there early though if you definitely want the pot pie. Pereira only makes a limited number by hand each day and when they are gone, they are gone. On the day we went, we just happened to get the last one.
All in all, the WoodSpoon is a great contribution to the fashion district dining scene. It is a simple storefront restaurant with a chef that specializes in clean, fresh, homemade Brazilian cooking. The prices are reasonable and the employees are fun. One word of caution, Pereira generally tries to handle all of the cooking herself. This means that, at the height of the lunch rush, you could be in for a long wait. Of course, Brazilian culture is much more relaxed than our own. The casual nature of the servers only add to the laid back vibe. As long as you go into the place expecting a nice, slow, casual, relaxing meal, that is exactly what you will get. If you need to be in and out in 20 minutes, I would pick someplace else.