The Oak Room
The revived landmark brings New York-style class back to the Plaza.
Tue Dec 16 2008
Photograph: Roxana Marroquin
Time Out Ratings :<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5
Into the nightmare of lawsuits, empty hotel rooms and dead-on-arrival public spaces chronicled in a series of recent stinging exposés comes the reopened Plaza’s first bit of good news: The Oak Room is back and better than ever. In the past few weeks, New Yorkers have been flooding this once-threatened landmark, a rare food-and-drink institution returned from the brink.
Which explains—more than Martha Stewart and her entourage finishing up dinner—the palpable excitement in the dining room on a recent visit. The restaurant has shaken off its old tourist trap manacles with a star chef in the kitchen and a new polished front-of-house team.
In reviving the Oak Room, its unlikely savior—kosher restaurateur Joey Allaham (Solo, Prime Grill)—has struck just the right balance between reverential throwback and new power canteen. The dining room’s turn-of-last-century floor-to-ceiling oak panels and soaring tableaux, as lovingly restored as the Sistine ceiling, are as gorgeous today as they must have been when F. Scott Fitzgerald found liquid inspiration beneath them—and now come accompanied by new emerald glass sconces, plush zebra-striped chairs and chef Joel Antunes’s destination cuisine.
Rather than tearing in, the Atlanta transplant—the most celebrated French chef from south of the Mason-Dixon—tiptoed into town. He offers no tasting menu, no effete choice of three butters and six types of bread, no petits fours cart or precious four-part amuses. Instead, you’ll find nostalgic, fuss-free grand hotel dining, elevated and updated by an expert technician.
In the casual Oak Bar that means clearheaded riffs on bistro classics—a light Caesar salad with thick, smoky bacon and blue cheese batons; sweet, mellow French onion soup; and a $26 burger. The burger’s sticker-shock price tag buys not foie gras or truffles, but a purist’s paean to top-quality beef—stuffed into a brioche bun with slow-roasted tomatoes and confited red onions.
Better values are to be found on the ambitious dinner menu, where Antunes struts much more of his stuff. Though $38 may seem like a small fortune to pay for a fresh pasta starter—even ethereal lasagna filled with Jerusalem artichoke cream—consider the obscenely luxurious shroud of shaved winter truffles on top. His more reasonable, but no less inspired, $18 escargot antiboise features a generous portion of plump, shell-free snails, briny capers, Ligurian olives, skinless grapes no bigger than pebbles and delicate miniature ravioli.
Packed at dinner and swarming with waiters in pin-striped vests, the Oak Room feels less like an institution reborn than one transported to its long ago prime (the flattering light makes everyone look like an extra on an old movie set). Antunes’s brand of muted opulence has enough of a classical Escoffier bent to carry the illusion. His update on traditional duck à l’orange is a whole burnished breast in a beautiful sweet-sticky kumquat-mustard glaze, with candied kumquats and a calisson of cheesy polenta on the side.
Despite a wine list saddled with expense-account prices, there’s still a sense of recession restraint. An earlier menu was far more sprawling and offered a now vanished option (for an extra $80) of adding shaved white truffles to any dish. And while the food itself reads over-the-top rich, it is in fact far less decadent than first impressions suggest. Creamy squash risotto is light on its toes, with less butter and cheese than most. A John Dory main—perfect for a new generation of ladies who lunch—is haute spa cuisine, with four flaky fillets atop a medley of carrot and zucchini cutouts, poached garlic and tiny white beans.
The enormous dessert menu—featuring 11 options from pastry chef Eric Snow—pays far less attention to your waistline. A chocolate cigar signature—homage to the Oak Room’s beginnings as a smoky men’s club—is as close as you’ll come to chomping on a stogie there today. Delicious and playful, it features a frail chocolate cookie filled with a spiced chocolate mousse that ingenuously channels the grace notes of a fine cigar. For a more bracing finale, try the miniature frothy lemon meringue tart with a mojito sauce streak.
Though the new Oak Room delivers a fine evening, there are still kinks to work out. A dimmer-switch snafu one night sent the lights in a tailspin. That was followed by an off-key burst of live music from the bar. Our waiter responded with good cheer (and even sent over an upgrade on our wine to make up for a lag in the kitchen). In the end, we were as thrilled as the diners around us all seemed to be to discover a New York landmark, beautifully brought back to life.