Further Renovations Change Feel of Dogwood
Bridget and Galen Sampson opened the Dogwood (911 W. 36th St.,  889-0952) in Hampden last spring. Reviewing it then, I was encouraged by some things and troubled by others. There was a straightforwardness about the cooking, which worked better with the entrées than the appetizers, which seemed tentative, even lackluster, from a chef--that would be Galen Sampson--with a five-star résumé.
The Dogwood, then and now, has a twofold mission, the first being its commitment to procuring seasonal and organic ingredients (they were ahead of the curve there), the second its establishment of an apprenticeship program for "those recovering from addiction, homelessness, and incarceration," according to the restaurant's web site. When it opened, the Dogwood had done some cosmetic surgery on the old Mamie's space, but not nearly enough. It not only wasn't a physically inviting or comfortable space but there was a disconcerting lack of connection between the forward-looking mission and the dowdy ambiance and erratic service.
Then, the Dogwood did what has turned out to be a very smart thing. It shut itself down for a few months last summer and gave the below-ground space a thorough renovation, the most notable dividends of which are the installation of a bar (it's no longer BYO here), the untangling of service paths to and from the oddly located kitchen, and a wholesale brightening and contemporizing. People kept telling me about their good meals at Dogwood, and so I went back.
There are now two principal dining rooms, a brown and gray-carpeted area surrounding the bar, and a more cheerful cork-floored area across the central aisle. Either side is a zillion times nicer than what was here before, and the investment appears to be paying off. Both dining rooms were full to bursting on a recent Wednesday night, and our server told us that the Dogwood has been doing brisk business six nights a week.
It's much easier now to focus attention on the food, which for one thing looks a whole lot more appetizing now on better plates. But some dishes that seemed refreshingly simple and ungimmicky last time now feel a little, well, ordinary. We kept wishing they'd really go to town. Sometimes, sure, this ordinariness seems intentional--you know, letting good ingredients speak for themselves--but sometimes you wonder. Why isn't everything as perfect as the nifty little salad of romaine hearts, radishes, aged Parmesan, and seeded croutons with its wake-up horseradish Caesar dressing ($8); or the precisely pan-seared Alaskan halibut ($25), with lemon chile oil and beurre blanc working so nicely with the fish's sweet flesh, and an essence-of-spring accompaniment of sautéd leeks, mushrooms, and English peas; or the best-of-show strawberry shortcake ($7), made with real shortbread, a triumph of man working with nature?
A "duet of lamb" ($25) showed off excellent kitchen skills, too, but a more distinct difference in seasoning between the grilled rack chop and the citrus-braised shank would have made it more interesting. It felt like a missed opportunity.
Two entrées had issues. A pan-roasted monkfish ($19) had problems with toughness, and the grapefruit vinaigrette chosen for it felt too feeble for such a meaty fish. It just wasn't interesting. Something was off with the marinade of rosemary and tellicherry black peppercorns for the grilled teres major tenders, the Dogwood's favorite cut of beef ($18). The coating tasted more burnt than peppery, and the meat itself was underseasoned. It looked so beautiful, though, and I remember how wonderful a similar preparation was last visit.
Everyone admired the ratatouille tart ($9) and the fresh lettuces that came with it. A crispy eggplant-colcannon strata appetizer ($10) showed off some Jenga-worthy layering, and was dressed with tomato coulis and kalamata olives, but it didn't convince me that eggplant plays nicely with mashed potatoes. There are occasional inexplicable moments, like the Choptank oysters ($13), baked with spinach, bacon, Parmesan and way too much whole-grain mustard crème, a misfire.
On the whole it's a pleasure now to eat the Dogwood--it's a refuge in Hampden--and I remain convinced by the sincerity of what they're trying to do. But there remains something unresolved at Dogwood. If it were a movie, you'd be waiting for the director's cut. H
Open for lunch and dinner Mondays through Saturdays. Closed Sunday.