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Poulet Rouge crispy leg with ricotta dumpling, salsify and cinnamon jus.

Branching Out

by Mark Stuertz | Photography by Jill Broussard | Modern Luxury Dallas magazine | December 2, 2013

At twilight, the lumens at Oak are dim, setting an intimate evening ambience. Once the sun is neatly tucked behind the Oak Lawn horizon, dimly lit bulbs embedded in the chandeliers overhead provide just enough light to peruse the cuisine to come. These lights are an element in an interior-design scheme reminiscent of a modern, contemporary living room, complete with couches and plush chairs.

The meal begins with a stunning heirloom beet salad, with cool Greek yogurt pana cotta dressing laced with powdered honey, and drops of 8-year aged sherry vinaigrette strategically dot the plate and are hard to see. Are the beets yellow or red? Spindly elements resting along the edges of the beets turn out to be, upon closer examination, edible flowers.

Food is a sensual experience that engages most of the senses—all of them, if you count the flaming saganaki cheese with the mandatory “Opa!” shout in Greek restaurants. It’s unfortunate that this diffuseness makes it near impossible to appreciate the full visual impact of chef Richard Gras’ craft.

The ceviche displays Gras’ craft vividly, with elegant simplicity. A wafer of chopped Gulf snapper, kissed for a few moments in citrus, bathes in a green pool of pureed charred cucumber, salt, olive oil, coconut milk and lemon. Bright red dots of aji panca (Peruvian red pepper) punctuate the surface. It’s topped with small sheets of rice paper. The understated pool of surrounding flavors permits the intrinsic fish flavors to seep through effortlessly.

At the Oak helm for just a few months, Gras replaced opening chef Jason Maddy, who departed the restaurant last May, and is now in the Cayman Islands. With stints at Navio at The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay in Northern California, along with The St. Regis Bal Harbour in Miami, it’s no surprise that Gras admits to a heavy California culinary-style bias. To this, he stirs in Mediterranean, Asian and South American influences, combined with a little Texas locavorism, when possible.

It’s a style blessedly free of foams and liquid-nitrogen experiments. There’s a crisp Caesar salad with broad shavings of Parmesan and “hand-torn” croutons. For unbound carnivore lust, there’s roasted bone marrow laced with pecans, dates and short-rib marmalade extracted from shallots and red onions; and cooked down with red wine, cabernet vinegars and a little honey. The dish is rich with contrasting savory and sweet tastes, edged with a sting of bitterness bleeding from a snarl of frisee.

Poulet Rouge is the dish with the greatest unactualized potential. A crispy chicken leg is paired with a stuffing formulated from foie-gras torchon scraps, rye bread and bits of chicken tenderloin—it’s moist here, arid there. The structures rest on a bed of chewy, delicious maitake mushrooms steeping in a pool of cherry reduction, near dots of mint puree, with parsnips tumbled over the top. Foie-gras flavors are clouded, barely discernable; but the recipe has been reformulated, with a ricotta dumpling, salsify and cinnamon jus. The foie gras is likely to jump a bit higher with this recipe.

A tasty wedge of halibut, on a bed of pan-roasted Brussels sprouts with housemade pancetta, is moist and flaky, with a crispy seared sheath draping the fish. Gras revels in cured meats and charcuterie. “We bring a whole animal in once a month,” he says of using everything, including heads, and poached tongues and cheeks. Gras is also experimenting with lamb prosciutto: a menu element he hopes to debut in about a year. That’s some serious curing.

Service is attentive (and wait staff knowledgeable about menu details), but it’s a little slow on our visit. Oak’s wine list is brief and eclectic, with selections from California, Oregon, Italy, Spain and France. We found the San Giorgio Ciampoleto Rosso di Montalcino from Tuscany to be a nice match for the bone marrow; its acidic richness deftly scrubbing fats from the palate.

You would have been able to finish off with the moist molten chocolate cake, with a scoop of salted-caramel ice cream, on a bed of housemade shortbread crumbs; but, as of this writing, the dessert menu has been scrubbed. Oak has brought in pastry chef Lucia Merino, who honed her chops at Miami’s Fontainebleau Hotel and Restaurante Igueldo in Barcelona. She will recast the dessert menu, no doubt with nuts that don’t fall too far from this Gras-grown tree.

Top Shelf
The Mighty Oak is a heady brew of eagle rare bourbon, mint, ginger, lemon and soda—as refreshing as it is stiff.

Just Like Old Times
Just as it did upon Oak’s opening in early 2012, a flat-screen TV broadcasts animated tree art: an oak slowly swaying in the wind.

Prime Patio
Oak’s patio has been transformed into an enclosed, climate-controlled interior terrace. A retractable roof ushers in a taste
of the outdoors.