When you dine out as much as we do, it's easy to get caught up in the buzzy enthusiasm for the next big thing. You're so busy assessing evermore spectacular kale Caesars, liquor infusions -- Douglas fir, anyone? -- and jellied, foamed, nitrogen-frozen things that you forget why people actually dine out.
They want to have a good time in comfortable surroundings, enjoying something delicious served by people who are delighted to be serving them. They want to feel taken care of. That's it.
Life is challenging enough, after all, without risking your hard-earned wages on, say, mako shark, squid ink pasta and servers who can't be bothered to actually take your order -- and don't notice when you get up and leave, frustrated by your inability to order black ravioli.
That's why neighborhood restaurants are such a lovely thing. They may not be the swankiest affairs, and the food may be a little uneven, but their staff pours heart and soul into making guests love the place as much as they do. You walk into a place like the new Wence's in Pleasant Hill, and you feel welcome.
Chef Gerardo Wence took over the recently shuttered Fig Tree space -- which was previously Nibblers -- in October. It's a cozy little place and not much has changed about its appearance, but the menu has grown dramatically.
We suspect that Wence is juggling what he wants to do -- seafood and a few grill items -- with the dishes beloved by Fig Tree/Nibblers devotees, because the menu now spans everything from raw oysters to bacon cheeseburgers, jambalaya and truffle macaroni and cheese. It's an inclusive, something-for-everyone approach but one that's difficult to pull off without a Cheesecake Factory-sized army of cooks in the kitchen and the dining table turnover that keeps that many different ingredients fresh.
That said, our server -- the chef's charming and opinionated nephew -- knew that menu up, down and sideways and every suggestion he made was a winner. Had we ordered only his favorites, we'd have walked out thinking Wence's was the best place ever.
The menu offers a dozen starters and four more small plates, three soups and a multitude of salads. Plus raw oysters -- three kinds offered four different ways. And that's before you even get to the entrees.
Many of the starter offerings sounded tempting -- calamari with a remoulade sauce ($10), for example, street tacos ($8) and the truffle mac-n-cheese ($7) -- but it was a blustery night and chicken enchilada soup ($3.50 for a cup) sounded so very warming.
The soup, the menu told us, is made "fresh daily." I worry when I'm told that. It's like saying oxygen will be provided. I kind of take those things for granted. Here, the mild spiciness banished the chill, but the soup did not taste of the fresh produce one might hope for, and the texture had the distinctive mouth feel you get in, say, a canned soup.
An artichoke salad ($9) with organic arugula, almonds, crumbled feta and marinated artichoke hearts wasn't spectacular either, and we debated whether another of the many choices might have been better -- the Caesar ($8) or Wedge ($8) perhaps, or one of the main-course-sized Cobbs ($11) or Nicoise ($14).
Ah, but then we hit the entrees, a subject upon which our server had definite and tactfully phrased opinions. The Alaskan halibut ($19) was his clear favorite -- he must have circled back to that topic three times, each time noting the savory loveliness of the romesco sauce and assuring us that "if you like sauce, this is the sauce."
Naturally we ordered it, wooed by the description of pan-seared fish with cherry tomatoes, fresh corn, garlic, shallots, arugula and yes, sauce, albeit not romesco's classic thick, red pepper-based puree. It was gorgeous, subtle and delicious, the "sauce" a lovely broth -- easily a three-star dish.
There are plenty of other entree choices on this menu but ... get the halibut. There are burgers ($9-$11), steaks ($20-$25), pastas ($12-$16) and paella ($16). There are other seafood picks, too, including salmon and swordfish ($18 each), and slightly fishy fish and chips ($13), fried in a pale ale batter that could have used more seasoning, but that was served with great fries.
Forget that. Get the halibut -- and then follow it up with our server's favorite dessert, the banana bread pudding ($6). He was much too tactful to dissuade us from our other dessert choice, the pear crisp with huckleberries ($6), which was fine but not spectacular. But he must have mentioned the bread pudding three times and by then, we knew.
It was going to be great, with big squares of tender, custardy, fresh banana-laced bread -- not too sweet, but fresh and warm and comforting. And it was.
The bottom line is this: There's so much promise here, but the effort to please everyone is resulting in a menu too vast to be done well. Focus the menu and this could be a truly great neighborhood restaurant. With halibut. In a lovely sauce.
FOOD: * *
AMBIENCE: * * ½
SERVICE: * * ½
WHERE: 1922 Oak Park Blvd., Pleasant Hill
CONTACT: 925-566-8971, http://wencesrestaurant.com
HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, and until 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays
CUISINE: A little of everything
VEGETARIAN: A vegetarian pappardelle dish and a truffle mac and cheese
BEVERAGES: Wine and beer by the bottle and glass
NOISE LEVEL: Medium loud
PARKING: Strip mall parking lot
KIDS: The $5 children's menu includes chicken tenders, cheeseburgers and mac and cheese.
PLUSES: This warm, welcoming place is all heart, and some of the dishes are spectacular. Don't miss the halibut.
MINUSES: An enormous menu means dishes are uneven. Some are very good, some not so much.
DATE OPENED: October
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Restaurants are rated on a scale of one to four, with four representing a truly extraordinary experience for that type of restaurant.
$ Most entrees under $10
$$ Most entrees under $20
$$$ Most entrees under $30
$$$$ Most entrees under $40