It can't be easy being the restaurant next door to The Herbfarm. It must create an identity crisis akin to being Roger Clinton, when your neighbor is a nationally renowned dining destination.
It's not easy being a hotel restaurant, either. Barking Frog must cater to the needs of the transient, business-weary, pleasure-seeking guests of Willows Lodge, a luxurious country inn that blends discreetly into the charming semi-rural topography of this corner of Woodinville, where horseback riders saunter along the two-lane highway and hot-air balloons hover picturesquely over lush, green acres dotted with stately wineries.
These are perhaps the reasons why Barking Frog's short menu doesn't try to be cutting edge. But it doesn't explain why some dishes achieve a dazzling interplay of color, texture and taste, while others seem as trite as banquet fare. Certainly the new executive chef, Tom Black, most recently of Fullers, has the talent, but since he's also the restaurant's general manager, he may lack the time to personally oversee every detail.
Black's style of cooking — simple, almost rustic, yet decidedly polished — suits the restaurant's classy but casual mountain-lodge-like setting better than the fussier French fare of his predecessor. But reflecting on a series of meals there is like recalling a turbulent love affair.
I thrill to the memory of six crackling, fresh, chilled jumbo prawns swaddled in a rich, orange-kissed mayonnaise ($15 dinner/$11 lunch), a dish as audacious as Marilyn in mink and just as luscious. Gently seared sea scallops ($15) are equally swoony sauced just sweetly enough with caramel and tucked inside a nest of Chinese long beans.
Asparagus is shaved like confetti over a slab of beef tenderloin ($35) that's as tender as a baby's cheek. Subtly sauced with red wine and garlic, it's fittingly presented on a pedestal of thinly sliced potatoes. Too bad the red-wine-braised pork cheeks ($14) aren't similarly textured; had they been at least fork tender, they and the truffled mashers would have made a fabulous couple.
Black has me lusting again for seared ahi ($32) after sampling his version, in which magenta-centered chunks of grilled fish, so tender you could cut it with a sharp look, join fingerling potatoes and cabbage sautéed with apple-smoked bacon in bracing beet beurre blanc.
The tough veal chop ($32) broke my heart, though it looked great on the long bone and was cooked to a perfect medium rare. It arrived with chewy rapini and baby chanterelles, neither improved by a harsh balsamic sauce. Only the jaunty corn fritter coaxed a smile.
Smoke enhances burly, spice-rubbed rack of Northwest lamb with baby vegetables ($34). But the presence of Madeira is elusive in the light jus, and cottony Duchess potato, burdened with a rubbery slice of melted Gruyère, undermines the dish.
In one meal, you might be swept off your feet, fall in love and have your heart broken, only to be seduced all over again by dessert ($8). Pastry chef Christina Longo marries bittersweet chocolate with cherries in a tart sauced with amaretto-spiked crème anglaise and pairs fragile peach and nectarine-filled empanadas with blueberry salsa laced with nutmeg and star anise.
Flirt with the wine list and you'll discover a few Oregon pinots mingling with an otherwise staunchly partisan Washington crowd. The list is organized by style rather than varietal. That means, if you want chardonnay, for example, you must decide whether you want it "tart and lucid," "round and woody," or "bright and easy." A wine list that reads like the personal ads might amuse connoisseurs, but it could frustrate novices, especially when there's no sommelier to guide you, surprising in a wine-country restaurant that otherwise shows great respect for wine. Servers present the bottle when pouring by the glass and supply appropriate stemware for the type of wine.
Next door at The Herbfarm, you'll pay a king's ransom to dine; Barking Frog will cost merely a princely sum, but that still puts in the special-occasion category on many budgets. It's worth noting that midday prices are lower. At lunch, you can have a superb king-salmon club ($13) made with good bacon, tomato and red onion, generously dosed with caper aioli, or a bowl of robust beef broth chock full of roasted chicken and crunchy spaetzle ($7). A heap of Willie's Greens with candied walnuts, $10 at dinner, is only $6 at lunch. (Choose the balsamic vinaigrette over the too-sweet rhubarb dressing.) Slices of potato bread with sun-dried-tomato tapenade are complementary.
Splurge on a generously poured glass of DeLille Cellars D2 ($15), made just down the road, and enjoy the romance of a wine-country afternoon without any of the complications of falling in love.
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