The origin of Woodland Kitchen and Bar's name is apparent the moment you cross the threshold.
Long strips of wood line the ceiling, creating a warm, handsome, very grown-up space, the kind of place that feels like a ''night out''. But it isn't just a place for dates, date nights or after-work drinks that morph into dinner. A youngster with a rather fetching fluffy pink antenna-like headband sits alongside her folks at one of the tables, and a kids' menu has meals for a tenner, including an activity bag. Staff are in jeans.
This is a place that suits everyone: families, couples, groups of friends. You won't eat a meal plugged into the latest dining trends. There are no frankenfoods, bush tucker, tacos or sliders. Just quality food and attentive service that lets guests get on with the task of catching up.
Damian Heads (you know, that bloke from Ready Steady Cook) and his wife Jenni are the team behind Woodland. Damian has been onsite for a few years, originally as part of the Pony group. He split from them in October, taking over the Neutral Bay site, changing the name and re-focusing the restaurant as a local brasserie.
It's quite a change, from managing 45 kitchen staff across multiple venues and two states, to one location and a team of five, a decision precipitated by wanting more time with his family - he and Jenni have two young children.
Old favourites such as tuna spring rolls and scallop salad remain. The small plates section has been jettisoned. The wine list has been re-jigged too, beefing up the affordable options in line with the new focus, and adding the option of a carafe.
As with Pony before, the grill is still a big feature of the menu with steak, chicken, haloumi and seafood cooked over coals and logs of ironbark.
A salmon steak comes with some serious indents from the grooves of the grill. It's a restaurant staple that often goes wrong, arriving either over-cooked or over-adorned. In this case, the subtle, smokey flavours of the grill are allowed to shine. It's beautifully cooked and accompanied quite simply by pickled beetroot, orange segments and creamy feta.
An eye fillet is also an exercise in simplicity. It comes rare, as requested, again with a subtle char-grill flavour, served on sweet orange and purple carrots with a mild salsa verde.
Snacky bits include Sydney rock oysters freshly shucked and served with a sherry vinaigrette. Less impressive is a duo of plump prawns, which are thickly battered and fried. Once they cool down we pick them up, dunk them in a sweet soy sauce and roll them in a little pile of Sichuan salt, but these accessories battle to compete with the batter.
A chocolate tart for dessert is a highlight. It is dark but not bitter, with bursts of sweetness from chunks of airy honeycomb, clotted cream and caramel sauce. On first appearance we fear our stomachs will be sent over the edge, but it is nicely balanced and not overly sweet.
Woodland Kitchen and Bar ticks a lot of boxes on the local brasserie front: good quality food, striking surrounds and excellent service. It can be a little pricey both for the portion sizes and the wow factor on the plate, but there's enough flexibility in the menu to suit a variety of budgets and dining styles.
WOODLAND KITCHEN AND BAR
2/19-25 Grosvenor Street, Neutral Bay, 9904 3400
Daily, noon to 3pm; Mon-Sat, 6pm-9.30pm; Sat-Sun, breakfast 10am to noon
Menu Crowd-pleasers with a focus on the woodfire grill.
Value Can be pricey, depending on the order. Raw bar $3.80-$16, starters $14.50-$22, mains $24-$38, dessert $8-$14.50.
Recommended dishes Oysters, woodfired steak and salmon, chocolate tart.