The first time I ate at the building that now houses Wild Garlic Grill, it was called the Frontier Drive-In. Known for frosty root beer (the large beer mug on the sign out front was once a root beer mug) and great hamburgers, it was just a short bike ride from my first apartment in Tucson.
Now chef Steve Shultz, he of the popular Red Sky and Luna Bella, is taking his talents and skills to a new level. And while certain aspects need some work, the food here is pretty damn good.
Schultz claims to use garlic from Gilroy, Calif., America's garlic capital. And he uses it well. There's plenty of white wine and butter, too. Who could complain about that?
We found the tiny dining room to be quite packed, or at least it seemed that way since the tables are so close together. The room is almost stark; plain white walls with a few paintings and a wine list, and wooden ribs across the ceiling. You can eat at the bar, which is open to the kitchen. But even that seemed a bit cramped. It was too cold that day to sit on the big patio so everyone was inside, which made things a little too cozy.
We started our lunch with the grilled garlic shrimp ($9). With a couple of pieces of warm bread (which isn't served with the shrimp), this would have been a most-satisfying lunch.
Here, both the "grill" and the "garlic" in the restaurant's name ring true. The medium-sized shrimp were so perfectly cooked that you wondered how he did it. There was char and yet the shrimp were tender and sweet. Grilled vegetables, a tiny bit of warm brie and a lovely corn relish accompanied the shrimp, and all were done well. But it was the buerre blanc that set this dish apart. Smooth, silky and buttery rich, it brought all the other ingredients together in a most wonderful way.
Then there was the immense portion of linguini Bolognese ($12 at lunch; $14 at dinner). The sauce combined ground beef, pork and lamb with barely-there tomatoes, red wine and herbs, and plenty of garlic, the key ingredient in many of the dishes at Wild Garlic Grill. But unlike so many other places where garlic is the first, last and practically the only flavor in a dish, Shultz coaxes the best out of the stinking rose. In this dish, garlic warmed up the sauce without dominating. It was a fine version of Bolognese.
We also ordered one of the featured dishes from the chalkboard menu, ahi tuna with more of the grilled vegetables ($23). A bit overpriced, I'd say, but I didn't ask what it cost and the server didn't say. Nor was it on the chalkboard. I might not have ordered it had I been paying attention, but I was glad I did anyway. The chunk of tuna was easily an inch and a half thick and probably three inches square. It was topped with a country olive tapenade that added a slight saltiness and a creamy, rich tomato risotto that had more of that darn buerre blanc.
On both visits, service was unpolished and slow. (Wild Garlic Grill isn't the place to go for lunch if you only have an hour.) At dinner, our server was pleasant enough but seemed untrained. We each ordered a glass of wine (which was reasonably priced) but a well-trained server would've asked if we wanted another glass, not just for our purposes but for the restaurant's benefit as well.
I was meeting a friend, and let the hostess and server know that when I was seated on the patio. But my friend was kept waiting even after she asked if I had arrived. The hostess was otherwise occupied chatting with a table of what appeared to be friends. Again, this is a service issue that is basically a matter of paying attention, and doing it right goes a long way in enhancing the overall dining experience.
Like the main dining room, the patio needs some work in terms of décor. It looked like it hadn't been painted in a long while and the mismatched furniture just didn't work. But then our food arrived and we didn't care how it looked.
The Gilroy garlic cheese fondue ($7) arrived at the table with some toasted cubes of French bread. Aromatic with garlic, the fondue was gooey and hot. It disappeared in no time.
We ordered the caldo of braised pork shoulder ($12) and the lamb shank special ($23). About five minutes later, our server informed us that chef had just told her they were out of the pork. That's something the chef should have let the staff know when it happened. Again, a detail issue.
In lieu of the pork, we ordered the tilapia baked in foil ($12).
The lamb was so perfectly cooked that all it took was a nudge of the fork for it to fall off the bone. Rustic, earthy and rich from a red-wine sauce jam-packed with tomatoes, soft onions and thinly sliced mushrooms, the shank was a most satisfying meal.
The tilapia was also prepared with care, and the buttery garlic-white wine sauce made the mild fish sing.
The desserts were just not interesting enough to warrant ordering them. Besides, who would want to dampen all that wonderful garlicky-ness with a sugary finish?
All in all, dining at the Wild Garlic Grill is a great experience. The servers need some training—and a few coats of paint would go a long way in creating some ambiance—but the food is fab and the prices are right. Here's to Shultz and crew ... may they keep being wild.