Some restaurants build their menu around what customers think they want; others unleash the creativity of accomplished chefs to create a menu that defies expectations. 

The culinary team at Herb & Wood knows its regulars are going to grumble when the menu changes over in February, removing many of the core dishes that built the acclaimed restaurant’s dedicated following. But, they are resolved to create the next generation of crowd favorites.

The team is headed by chef/partner Brian Malarkey, culinary operations manager Michael Ground, and new sous chefs Sebastian Becerra and Sergei Simonov. 

The heart of truly great restaurants is a culinary team that is passionate about the food it’s making and is inspired to take on new challenges. Keeping chefs energized day after day means giving them opportunities to ignite their imagination with new dishes. This creative freedom was what attracted Herb & Wood’s Becerra, previously of New York’s Eleven Madison Park, and Simonov, formerly of The Lark Santa Barbara. 

Malarkey compliments The Lark. 

“We really identify with the food they are doing up there,” he says.

“I ate there last summer, and it was the best meal of my year. We brought Sergei down here to take us into the next three years at Herb & Wood.” 

Simonov feels right at home, offering, “Herb & Wood is a spectacle; the dining room is always full and crowded and buzzing. I really like the style of cooking over wood, giving it that additional flavor and robustness.”

Becerra is a San Diego native who returned home with a new perspective on the culinary scene. 

“In New York, we would look at a tomato and say, ‘How can we make it taste more like a tomato?’ In California the produce is already so flavorful that we just let the ingredients shine.”

While guests can expect new dishes and techniques, the signature Herb & Wood style will remain. The white oak wood-burning oven will still impart a smoky char to meats and veggies, usually balanced by the bright acidity of citrus. Mediterranean flavors remain bold, accented with Middle Eastern touches. 

The carrots, branzino and gnocchi are not leaving, but Malarkey shares that around half of the menu will be different. He hints at the notable changes.

“The potatoes are going away, and the cauliflower. The venison and all of the steak dishes are changing. All of the pastas are being reimagined. But the scallops are coming back, which everyone is really excited about,” Malarkey says. 

The departing dish most likely to cause a blowback? It will definitely be the crispy potatoes, a dish that has a cult following in San Diego. In addition to lemon vinaigrette, black pepper and Parmesan, the secret ingredient is horseradish, which gives a liveliness to the decadent dish. It’s addictive, with its gooey cheese, Parmesan baked crispy at the edges, enveloping the smashed potatoes. In its final days on the menu, pay your respects by pairing the dish with an Iberico & Bourbon cocktail. The bar repurposes fat from the kitchen’s Jamón Ibérico to wash the bourbon, combining it with amaro and bitters for a smooth spirit-forward cocktail with delicate notes of spice. 

The team at Herb & Wood is not being cavalier in changing out its signature dishes, instead replacing them with soon-to-be favorites. A sneak peek into a few of the new menu items includes a gemelli pasta, prepared in a lighter take on a carbonara with octopus, pancetta, Napa cabbage, Parmesan and egg yolk. A tender duck breast will be served with turnip, peas, pomegranate and Meyer lemon. My personal favorite upcoming dish is the lamb loin, full of flavor and accompanied by dill yogurt, cucumber, mint, sundried tomato and onion, served with homemade roti. 

“We’re pushing the menu; we’re taking it to a new level. The kitchen is run by committee instead of saying, ‘This is my way. This is how it is.’ We’re determined to keep the restaurant on the forefront.”

Herb & Wood, 2210 Kettner Blvd, Little Italy, 619.955.8495, herbandwood.com.