From the acorn of the Design District has mighty Oak grown
The epigram “from small acorns mighty oaks grow” could hardly be a more apt metaphor for the fine dining restaurant Oak. Almost everything about this bastion of new American cuisine is as solid as its namesake: The décor, the cocktail program, the service and of course chef Jason Maddy’s creative food.
Located in the Design District, the city’s up-and-coming destination neighborhood, it opened earlier this year in the cold of January across from the Meddlesome Moth. (Who would do that? Not open in winter, but put an oak across from a meddlesome moth? That’s begging for defoliation. But I digress.) Since then, the menu has changed regularly, even if it only means adding seasonal accents (a Hatch chile consommé is on the menu now, but probably not for long). But even with new items, Oak has been consistently engaging and creative.
“Always order the strangest combination on the menu,” my well traveled foodie companion counsels on every fine-dining escapade. “If it’s not the best thing they make, then all of it will be bad.” A homeopathic diagnosis of dining health, to be sure, but over the years, a reliable one. At Oak, that meant gravitating toward the appetizer of Moroccan octopus and pork jowls with aji panca ($14). The jowls — fatty cubes of meat brushed with a crusty dousing of aji (a spicy dried chile of South America), paired with the greenish tendrils of tender octopus. The octo was without a hint of toughness; the pork itself melted on the tongue as the chile danced alongside the fragrant bite of cilantro and radish. Not only was it great, the dish may be the most satisfying indulgent I’ve tasted in Dallas all year.
From there, there’d be nowhere to go but down, though Oak maintains a high level throughout the menu. A composed melon terrine ($13) balanced the soothing, pastel flavors of honeydew and cantaloupe with more savory creaminess of chevre and salt from thin slices of Serrano ham. We were taken aback when the heirloom gazpacho arrived: Rather than pink or even yellow, it came as a clear broth, adding heat to the tomato and tuffs of crab meat. It did look like traditional gazpacho, but damned if it didn’t taste like it. And better.
The pheasant — a healthy sized breast with hatch chile au jus and chewy chanterelles garnished with cornbread gnocchi — was recently replaced on the menu with an organic half-chicken ($26), but the substitution has hardly affected taste of presentation. The yardbird’s crunchy skin left an impossible moist bit of meat, as juicy as office gossip. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better roasted chicken anywhere in town.
Also gone is the spiced lamb loin with a panzanella salad and lamb sweetbreads. Instead, the kitchen has a pork chop ($28) sliced and served like a loin. At first, it seemed too thick, even tough. But wait a moment: Cut through the briny, mocha-colored skin and dredge it through the dollops of quince puree and dill-infused creme fraiche. The flavors balance precariously, but they do balance. It’s in some ways a risky dish, courting disaster, but pulls it off.
Attention to detail is evident at lunch as well, where the slight hint of licorice from the fennel in the fritto misto gives the taste buds a pleasant jolt, and the filling ciabatta-roll bacon-gruyere burger puts most sandwiches to shame. At lunch and dinner, the Brussels sprouts — perfectly braised and dusted in panko and garlic — are a must-have.
Desserts ($8) overall are exceptional, and unexpected. Grains and starches make sense on main courses, but Oak inserts them healthily on the postres menu. There’s corn ice cream alongside their version of a financier, made with polenta. Again, patience pays off. Our first bite was slightly dry, but wait: As the caramel glaze seeps in, the cake is rendered sweet and savory, with Texas blueberries as plump as a housewife adding sticky moisture. (There’s even corn in the ice cream that accompanies it.)
One misfire: The panna cotta, made with a hazelnut flavored gianduja chocolate. It was sorely misnamed: like the gazpacho, it did not resemble its traditional namesake; unlike the gaz, neither did it taste like it. It’s not that it was bad, but we were simply not prepared for the fudgy pyramid of ganache drizzled with caramel atop a based of hazelnut brittle. Panna cotta needs to be lighter and creamier. Still, if you’re a fan of chocolate, you won’t find any denser.
Décor includes projections of “video art,” which could be considered twee or inspired; I elect to call it the latter. The room buzzy was but not loud, open and populated largely by well-heeled types. That probably accounts for the service, which is mostly unctuous and enthusiastic — when asked about any specials, our waiter replied with the time-worn praise “the entire menu is special.” Somehow, it seemed less cloying this time than in the past; that might be cause I knew he was right.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 7, 2012.