My little cup runneth over

Until recently, Woodland was not the kind of town where you expected to find great food. The seat of Yolo County was perhaps better known for its less consumable attractions, like the diesel-scented antique tractors at the Heidrick Ag History Center, or theater at the restored Woodland Opera House. But now there’s somewhere for a snazzy pre-theater dinner.

Tazzina Bistro, which opened last fall in a handsome old brick building, is worth a drive even if you’re not making an evening of it at the theater. When we visited on a Thursday night, the restaurant was full. Diners were varied and included a pair of women with shaved heads, farmer types wearing jeans and flannel shirts, the cardigan- and hearing-aid-sporting older set, families with kids, and young groups of friends. Everyone looked happy with their meals. With a little judicious eavesdropping (the restaurant buzzes, but it’s not overly loud), I could hear delighted praise for the food and invitations to dining companions to share and taste—a good sign.

With an ambitious but appealing menu that roams freely across the New American and California culinary landscape, and a particular way with vegetables and sides, chef-owner Rebecca Reichardt looks to have a hit on her hands. The décor is as eclectic as the menu, with twinkly lights hung in front, lots of art on the walls (the bathroom art, different in the men’s and women’s, is particularly quirky) and both a faded tomato-soup-red Vespa and a giant espresso cup inscribed with the restaurant’s name perched above the open kitchen. (“Tazzina” means “little cup” in Italian. Our waiter told us the owner has been collecting espresso cups for the restaurant.)

The appetizer and salad list is diverse in styles and prices. At $2.95, spiced nuts or marinated olives are a nice way to start the meal with a nibble. Complex small dishes, like seared duck with Parmesan soufflé or crab cakes with potato salad and citrus aioli, ran more than $10. We started off with nuts as we decided on more substantial choices. The medley of cashews, pistachios and sunflower seeds arrived warm. The nuts were spiked with brown sugar, rosemary and just enough cayenne pepper to make them piquant but not too hot.

As I read over the menu, I wished I had the appetite for at least two of the entrees, which included the mysterious “vegetables done five ways,” an intriguing chestnut risotto and a lavish fish stew, plus meaty options like hanger steak and lamb chops. For an appetizer, I was drawn to the cauliflower soup with paprika crème fraîche. This was a super-creamy, orange-tinged brew with a nice cauliflower flavor and a pleasant kick—no timid little swirl of crème fraîche here. My husband had an excellent warm salad of sturdy, colorful, wilted bitter greens with goat cheese, pancetta and glazed walnuts.

We both ended up choosing meat for an entrée: I had a braised pork shoulder with tangy warm potato salad, onion gravy and red cabbage, and my husband had a burger. Not just any burger, though. It was made from Snake River Farms Kobe beef and topped with Tabasco aioli, cheese and grilled onions. It also came with tastily salty house-made potato chips on the side.

The burger’s extreme and delicious juiciness put my Teutonic-style dish somewhat in the shade. The pork, while tender and flavorful, was a little dry. More of the onion gravy would have helped. I loved the potato salad, though. All of the sides are available à la carte, and I wished we’d ordered a couple of them—not because we needed more food, but just because grilled broccoli raab and fennel mashed potatoes sounded so good.

Service was warmly friendly but sometimes overeager. There was no doubt that our server was genuinely enthusiastic about the restaurant, the food and our dinner, but at certain times we would have preferred a bit more restrained professionalism. For example, our server, unbidden, talked us through nearly the entire, longish dessert menu, only to trail off just before the cheese plate, which actually could have used some explanation about what cheeses were on offer.

Still, our enthusiasm for dessert was undamped. And, to be fair, the first item on the menu, the Tazzina trio, did require clarification. It was a threesome of espresso cups, filled with variations on a theme that changes at the whim of the kitchen. That night, it was three mini fruit cobblers baked in the cups: blueberry, strawberry and pear. I could resist neither the cuteness factor nor the pleasing hominess. My husband went for a wedge of white chocolate and dried cherry bread pudding that was sweetly dense and delicious.

My warm little cobblers tasted good, particularly the berry ones. The strawberry, especially, was flavorfully tangy and sweet. The berries had not been baked into flabby lifelessness—a common problem with cooking strawberries. However, the brown-sugar topping for each was a touch undercooked and sludgy, possibly due to brief baking in such a small vessel, and the pears were way too firm.

Despite some minor miscues, Tazzina Bistro is a welcoming place with a warm glow and some great food. We left feeling like our cups were full with a delicious dinner and the pleasant atmosphere—well worth the short trip to Woodland.