Restaurant review by Amy Cavanaugh
The first things I noticed about Oak + Char, a new restaurant from some Untitled vets in the old Graham Elliot space in River North, were the outlets and coat hooks underneath the bar. Hooks alone are enough for applause, but outlets? It’s a small detail, but a sign that this place wants people to settle in, relax and charge their phones. Then I noticed the cocktails, which helped ease our 45-minute wait for a table on a Friday night, including the Alicia, an easy-drinking, citrusy sloe gin cocktail, and the Dolly, with a rye, Campari and maple base that’s lightened up with lemon, egg white and cucumber. While the evening began on a high note, once we were seated at a chilly table next to the door, things suddenly weren’t so rosy anymore.
Oak + Char’s kitchen is the domain of Joseph Heppe (Untitled, with prior stints at Vermilion and Mercat a La Planxa), and he’s offering an American menu with global influences, in which each dish is cooked using fire, a basic concept that doesn’t need to be explained on the restaurant’s website. But there are some really good dishes here. A dish of charred burrata with spicy eggplant and naan to scoop it up makes a fine starter, while at lunch, there’s a lovely cauliflower bisque, with smoked cilantro yogurt and pine nuts and golden raisin toast for texture. With dishes like these, you begin to see what Oak + Char could be. But the restaurant still has a ways to go in terms of refining food and service.
On the food front, there were lots of dishes with great flavor, while the cooking wasn’t quite right. While I liked the pickles and tender sweet onions piled atop the burger, the two thin patties were dry and tasted like they were forgotten on the grill. “We cook the burger to medium-well,” my server informed me, not giving me an option to request anything less. The skate schnitzel, decorated with curls of country ham, leaned on tiny florets of pickled cauliflower to cut through the heaviness of the dish. A spritz of lemon over the top would go a long way to brighten it up. Thick hunks of crispy fried broccoli with parsnip aioli were greasy, as were the pork trotter spring rolls, which lost any crispness long before they reached our table. The chicken wings had a fantastic thick, crisp exterior, but the maple, sherry and gochujang chili glaze didn’t deliver any heat, and they were very sweet.
These things would feel minor if Oak + Char were a comfortable place to eat. Our server instructed us to order everything at once—we were served three appetizers and two entrées at the same time, while in the flurry of service, a server hit me on the shoulder with a plate. It was so loud (the pillowy light fixtures don’t seem to cut noise in a room made up of lots of oak) that I had to point to the menu to order a beer, because the server couldn’t hear me—and because, as he told us, he didn’t know what was on the list. And when I ordered the rye-aged duck, aged and seared (see photos above), I was served confit duck and a link of duck boudin blanc sausage with creamy duck liver vinaigrette and Concord grape sauce. I emailed the restaurant’s publicist, and basically, the kitchen can’t keep up with production, so they sub in duck confit when they run out of the rye-aged duck. It’s strange our server never mentioned the change, and if I had been returning to Oak + Char for the seared duck and was served something else (even though it was delicious), I’d be irritated. Since I wasn’t, it was just an example of how the service is undoing anything good coming out of the kitchen.
Oak + Char’s name and theme are linked to the Chicago fire, since the city was charred and rebuilt. The building blocks for a solid restaurant are here, but there’s some clearing out of dishes that aren’t quite working and revamping of service to be done.