Wild, a new restaurant at the Ogden, specializes in gluten-free pizzas and organic, mostly vegetarian fare designed by entrepreneur/restaurateur Miki Agrawal. It’s a spin-off of her restaurants in New York City (also named Wild, formerly known as Slice), and it’s quite impressive on many levels—except one that counts most. If you’re looking for pizzas that will make you weep with joy and al dente pasta to rival ones in our best Italian restaurants, you might be better served to tread a more conventional path.
Before I expand on this, let me mention that gluten intolerance is on the rise, and possibly connected to the consumption of GMO wheat flour products. (Although this is still just a theory, it seems that we are no longer eating the wheat our grandparents did.)
Agrawal is also pretty impressive herself. She’s a true achiever: the author of Do Cool Sh*t (Harper Collins, 2013), a motivational speaker who has appeared at TEDx events and spoken at the U.N., and a successful businesswoman who is simultaneously launching a women’s underwear company with her twin sister, Radha. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh is Agrawal’s partner in the new location. Together, they are certainly changing the shape and face of Downtown.
Wild is engagingly designed, a split-level space with an open kitchen, the long, communal table that has become de rigueur at restaurants for millennials, raw wood, exposed ceiling ducts and similar conceptual buttons. The floor is cement. There are plates on all the tables for sharing. Silverware is kept wrapped in cloth napkins that sit in a metal basket on your table. There are even cards to invite strangers over for a drink that read, “I usually drink alone.” (Check “Y” if you want to remain anonymous, “N” if not.)
On one visit, I sat on the lower level, at the sunken bar. Well, I’m not sure the gin is organic here, but the cocktail program is cool enough, and Wild has a full bar. While seated, I enjoyed one of Wild’s best dishes, the lentil curry. What you get is sort of a spicy, rich hummus, a mixture of eggplant and lentils, served with big celery stalks cleverly presented in an open-topped mason jar with sliced carrots and crunchy gluten-free breadsticks for dipping. It’s delicious, imaginative and fun.
I also quite liked Simple Beet, a frisee salad with warm goat cheese, toasted almonds and lemon vinaigrette. But the fresh bruschetta, which the bartender bragged on, would be better with more garlic and basil, and if it lost the balsamic vinegar drizzle. (Has anyone noticed the tyranny of balsamic vinegar these days? It’s taken over airline salads, and I, for one, do not like the stuff unless it’s the syrupy aceto balsamico from Modena.)
If you haven’t already guessed, the bruschetta employs gluten-free bread, which is neither a draw nor a distraction. When it comes to the pizzas, though, it must be said that while a few are pleasant, gluten-free crusts will never have the spring, chew or flavor of those made with high-gluten flour. These crusts have a pleasant sweetness, though, and work better if they are well-done, which I recommend you request.
That said, my favorite is the chicken tikka masala pizza, which reflects part of Miki’s Japanese-Indian ethnicity. The topping is creamy, spicy and a nice foil for this type of dough. The arugula-goat cheese pizza runs a close second.
I sampled two pastas, both, ahem, also gluten-free, and therefore easy to overcook, which was what happened to my Perfect Pasta a La Cecca (sic), which, unlike the bruschetta, was overwhelmed with fresh garlic. The wild mushroom herb pasta—linguine blended with arugula, fresh mushrooms and herbs—held up better, was nearly al dente and delicious when pepped up with a little Parmesan cheese.
Wild has a lot going for it, and it’s certainly a gutsy experiment for Downtown. But any specialty restaurant should know this: The challenge is to attract people not inclined to go gluten-free, not those who are. And that, I suspect, will be a work in progress for a long time.