First Taste: Oak + Char
When rumblings of a new restaurant began formulating for the former Graham Elliot space, it seemed the restaurateurs were hell-bent on checking off every dining cliche in the books. There were the two random words strung together by a conjunction, in this case a plus sign. There was the "modern Midwestern" ethos opining on their website about Chicago's melting pot neighborhoods and its rebirth from the Great Chicago Fire. There were the communal tables. There were small shareable plates. But then we learned that executive chef and native Midwesterner Joe Heppe had the mettle to back up the ethos, and in spite of some components of Oak + Char that appear to be trying too hard, it's Heppe's culinary handiwork and imagination that transcends the restaurant past cliche and into the upper echelons of River North's dining scene.
Oak + Char really takes the woods-y theme to the extreme. The whole space looks like an enormous, glorified sauna. While some elements make sense, like the charred wood elements, others seem random and incomplete, e.g. drape-like fixtures along the ceiling that look like jumbo hair scrunchies. Oak + Char is surprisingly cavernous, packed with high-tops, bar stools, and tables throughout the weirdly massive interior. But once you hanker down and wrangle one of the friendly-but-confused staffers, the setting starts to feel cozy and appropriate.
The menus here are full of welcome surprises, divvied into snacks, small plates, large plates, chef boards, and desserts. Each and every dish is a thoughtful plate of modern artistry, chock full of outré components and ingredients. The cheekily named MSG wings are as addictive as the moniker suggests, but packed with unexpected flavors of sweet maple, sherry, and the heady kick of gochujang chilies. Plump and supremely succulent, they're an apt foray into the culinary craftiness to follow. Octopus is cooked tandoori-style, rendered smoky and tender and adjoined by a meaty 'nduja vinaigrette for a fun riff on surf & turf, a sentiment echoed by the umami-meets-salinity of the beer tartare with uni aioli. In terms of larger plates, Korean braised short ribs are cooked perfectly until so tender it practically falls to shreds when you exhale on it. The most surprising dish of all, though, was the broccoli plate. Not often does broccoli get the star treatment as an entree, but here Oak + Char celebrates the greenery by frying whole florets and stems in a light tempura batter, resulting in a delicate crunch and soft, vegetal innards, almost like broccoli doughnuts. Draped with salty anchovies, the broccoli defied all odds to steal the show and single-handedly epitomize what Oak + Char is all about.
Drinks are just as daring, but fare less successful. After asking our server for suggestions, only to have her ramble off the entire list and their descriptions, we wound up with drinks that were too creamy and sweet (the Parker Flip with banana liqueur, egg, and bourbon) and too smoky, like falling face-first into a campfire (the Rodney with tequila, Mezcal, Cynar, celery bitters). Undoubtedly, though, the focus and strength here is the food. Sitting in the back private room is noisy and trying to get a servers attention is impossible. The Smoke-Roasted Chicken, cress pesto potatoes, runny farm egg at $25 is a winner.
Despite rattling off a slew of restaurant cliches in its design, menu format, and motto, Oak + Char proves that with a little precision, creativity, and craft, it can all be entirely worthwhile.
- Matt Kirouac