Without question, Oak continues to remain one of my favorite restaurants in Dallas by way of its décor and ambiance. It has a unique, contemporary presence that is both sleek and sexy; intelligent and tactful. In spite of these positive attributes, Oak has experienced an irregular amount of high-profile turnover. An unexpected occurrence, given the fact that it was named the best restaurant in Dallas by this publication in 2012, in addition to one of the top fifty best new restaurants in the country by way of Bon Appétit during the same year.
So what happened?
For the purpose of this conversation, let’s focus on the present. Executive Chef Brian Zenner (who concurrently oversees Belly & Trumpet) recently took the helm from Richard Gras, who presented his resignation this past June. Zenner, who acted as chef de cuisine to the acclaimed Jason Maddy during Oak’s wildly successful launch, is obviously familiar with the kitchen, in addition to the discerning demands of Oak’s clientele.
Monday night, I sat down to a gratis media dinner to sample Chef Zenner’s menu, in an effort to obtain perspective as to the current status of the restaurant, as well as its intent moving forward.
The starters do not take a lot of risk, with the exception of the Canary Melon salad with guajillo pepper, cotija, charred pepita and cilantro ($10). The dish displayed a unique blend of textures and colors, largely stemming from the sweetness of the melon, spice from the charred pepita, freshness of the cilantro and mild heat profile from the pepper.
The Yellowfin Tuna crudo with dashi gelee, black garlic, shiso and horseradish ($14) was elegantly plated. The fish displayed a hue of deep ruby, with golden horseradish and green mint atop a bronzed garlic spread. A unique hybrid of sashimi-grade fish and black garlic, I found that the flavors worked well together, irrespective of the uncustomary pairing.
Depending on “merroir”, a past favorite has always been the raw oysters with American sturgeon caviar, mignonette and chive ($16). Cocktail lovers should pair with a Vesper martini, an Ian Fleming concoction consisting of three measures of gin, one of vodka and half measure of Kina Lillet.
Not to be missed is the A5 Miyazaki Carpaccio with Parmesan, capers and arugula ($28 for 1.5 ounces). Flown in from Japan, the exquisitely marbled beef will also be featured as a filet. Offered at $20 per ounce (with a five ounce minimum), it’s not for the faint of wallet, but the rich, buttery texture associated with this delicacy is worth the experience. Perhaps save for a birthday, anniversary or closing dinner.
Zenner also included a Berkshire short rib & east coast squid on the menu ($16), which played homage to Jason Maddy’s renowned Moroccan octopus and pork jowls. While I appreciated the nod to the past, I found the combination of pork, squid, mole verde, elote, squash blossom and aji panca to be confusing, and not quite polished enough to appease those looking to reunite themselves with Maddy’s interpretation.
As summer comes to a close, I would suggest the Branzino with confit tomato, picholine olive, potato and ladolemono ($28). The skin was wonderfully charred, supported by tender, white, flaky flesh. The lemon juice cut through the bitterness of the braised chard, and the Argentinian Albariño (2012 Las Perdices Albariño) made for the most rewarding warm-weather pairing of the evening.
My favored entrée heading into fall is the beef short rib with marrow casoncelli, beech mushroom, kale and consommé. The short rib was rich and full of flavor by way of a calculated amount of fat. The beech mushrooms and kale added the necessary vegetable component, as the casoncelli burst forth with the unmistakable flavor of bone marrow hidden within the delicate pasta. Bravo.
While the macarons ($10) remain some of the best in town, I discovered a new love for the chocolate tart, complete with dulce de leche, milk and banana ice cream. For maximum enjoyment, pair with a peaty scotch, such as a Laphroaig 10 or Lagavulin 16, or perhaps a glass of the 2012 M. Chapoutier Banyuls – a sweet, red dessert wine from Appellation Banyuls Contrôlée.
Oak is on the right track to re-establish its rank as one of the top spots in Dallas. What is most important at this point is the attitude of everyone I spoke with – from those in the kitchen to the familiar faces in the front of the house that have stayed loyal to (and optimistic of) the Design District stalwart. As with any business that experiences the loss of its top brass, there will be a re-building process. Let’s hope that this change is the last, so we can return to the glory days.