Close your eyes. Take yourself away to some place in a Southern state east of Texas. You can choose whichever you prefer, but I'm going with the tree-lined hills of Tennessee. Make sure it's rural, though, one of those small country towns where everyone has a garden and summer afternoons are spent jarring tomatoes and pickling radishes and cucumbers.
It was a cold spring, and the peaches are tart, not quite ripe, and they crunch like apples when you bite them. Corn has just begun to wake up. Pickups are packed to the hilt with soft green husks and parked alongside the road. "Two dollars for a dozen," reads the hand-painted sign, and the corn is sweet but not as sweet as it will be soon. Summer's bounty is almost here.
Stay with me now. Just down the road there's a pig farmer, who maybe stuck to his guns because he's old-fashioned, or maybe stayed old-fashioned because he knew that old-fashioned is still the best way. He's raising Berkshire hogs on his pasture and they're still a little chubby from the acorns they gorged on last fall. They're eating all manner of roots and roughage now, and later, when Wilbur becomes a pork chop, his fat will be soft and palatable and taste of nuts and butter.
Oak, 1628 Oak Lawn Avenue
214-712-9700, oakdallas.com, 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday- Thursday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday, 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Saturday, $$$$ Closed Sunday
Moroccan octopus and pork jowls $13
Spiced lamb loin $28
Seared black bass $26
Veal schnitzel $12
I was here a week or so ago. This warm and sunny memory was invoked by pork chop cooked to perfection, sous-vide, before a cook used a hot grill to lend its exterior character and char. The pork chop perched on greens braised with ham hocks, which nested in a viscous pool of sweet corn puree. "It tastes like melted down, buttery corn on the cob," a diner noted with a gushing enthusiasm. The sentiment was both obvious and illuminating. She described the flawless celebration of a single ingredient.
There were treasures to be found — in a small dice of tart peaches laced with cinnamon and bright, pickled rhubarb that made you miss early spring pies. The gems were strewn about the plate to be unearthed by a fork in haphazard bites of bright acidity. They completed a dreamy but visceral image as big as the imagination will allow, even though it was confined to a single plate.
It's a shame you can't have it, at least not as it's been described here.
One thing you should know before you go to Oak — the celebrated new Design District restaurant helmed by the capable Jason Maddy — is a dish that's on the menu tonight may go missing tomorrow. Picture that tall, alluring blonde who gave you a lingering glance at the bar, but you didn't approach because you told yourself you'd buy her a drink next time. Hesitate here, and that plate, like that blonde, may be lost forever. When your server describes the featured dishes of the evening you'd do well to listen carefully. The specials at Oak really are just that — specials.
Time spent in similarly refined kitchens lent Maddy the skills to deliver such memorable plates. A stint at Danube, an Austrian restaurant in Manhattan that earned two Michelin stars before it closed, and the Driskill, a luxury hotel in Austin, preceded his tenure at the The Rosewood Mansion. His second-in-command, Brian Zenner, spent some time at the Mansion too, and together they've captured the spirit and refinement of Dallas' most recognized fine-dining restaurant with none of the fuss, and a fraction of the cost.
Things aren't perfect here. Copper River salmon arrived painfully overcooked on one visit, a tragedy considering the fanfare that marks the arrival of this pedigreed fish every season. A small bowl of spicy popcorn was stale at the bar one night and Champagne was as still as humid summer air. But don't worry too much. You will eat beautifully here far more often than not.
To describe every nuance of every dish at Oak would be superfluous — each has so many. And the components change so often it would be like trying to capture the window-framed landscapes of an entire country train ride in a single frozen image. What matters is these dishes conjure distant, dynamic flavor profiles that can take you somewhere else entirely.
A crudo plate evokes an artist's palette of colors: edible flowers in crimson and purple and a soy caramel sauce in glossy brown. Pickles of carrot, and mushrooms and daikon and who knows what else illuminate the plate in a patchwork of hues and flavors. Try each morsel on its own — they've each been enhanced with their own custom brine — and then gather them all into a single bite and enjoy a kaleidoscope of flavors. Note how they complement shockingly fresh fish.
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The flavors are so broad because Maddy and his staff draw from ethnic cuisines from around the globe, and it's notable that these dishes maintain balance with so much noise. Morocco is represented in a tender braised octopus spiced with cardamom and arobol chili and paired with pork cheeks that melt away like a dream in your mouth. A Spanish broth dresses up a properly seared rectangle of sea bass with crunchy skin paired with tiny, briny artichokes tinged with preserved lemon. An impeccably seared lamb loin calls to Ethiopia with a spicy berbere rub. Oak could take you anywhere, and it's easy to melt away in the large tufted leather booths, oversized tables and bar stools that were all designed with decadent comfort in mind.
Sit where you like and lose yourself in the projected image of an Oak tree at the back of the dining room. Its branches sway in a subtle breeze as the foliage slowly shifts from lifelike green to pink to purple and back to green again. It's a visual meditation that's both strange and calming.
This is what you've been looking for. A comfortable space with a more than competent staff that's as worthy as the plates they describe with passion and detail. They know their wines, too, and will let you sample glass after glass till you find the right mate.
Share some time with a crisp, acidic Grüner Veltliner the color of corn silk that drinks like that blonde you let get away. You've captured her now. And tones of grass and minerals from clay-rich soils will set you off on your next adventure, this time to Austria, with spaetzle that's been given a rich and crunchy brown crust in a sautee pan. One bite could invoke the texture of crispy hash browns from a childhood breakfast, the next a vacation meal amidst snow-capped Alpine mountains — you could easily go either way. It's your dinner. And it's your memory. A meal can take you anywhere when it's prepared with this much imagination.