There’s something elemental about food cooked by fire. It’s kind of primal, I note. “That’s exactly what it’s like,” agrees executive chef Brad Wise. The cooking grate wheels up to expose the inferno. Flames leap from logs at the hearth grill’s rear and coals smolder beneath. Red oak creates a sweeter smoke flavor and an ideal coal bed, he explains. A Santa Maria-style handcranked wheel provides precision over heat and the Argentinian-esque grill grate supports proteins from land and sea. The custom-built setup is impressive, and it’s ground zero for Wise and business partner Steve Schwob’s newest neighborhood eatery.
Yet, dining at newly opened Fort Oak in Mission Hills is anything but primitive. The bar, which sits in a historic former Ford dealership showroom, and the new mixed-use structure for the main dining room and chef’s kitchen, made out with more than a routine paint job. Hints of midcentury-modern, cobalt and gilded art deco touches feel both invitingly warm and aesthetically cool in the restaurant’s modular spaces thanks to GTC Design’s inaugural hospitality project.
“As entrepreneurs, we remember being in the same position—we were just looking for someone to give us a chance,” reflects Schwob of their initial concepts, Trust Restaurant and Hundred Proof cocktail bar, and their decision to partner with GTC on Fort Oak. And the gamble paid off. A U-shaped bar plays social dining basecamp, while an intimate formal dining room flanks a wedgelike outside patio with the capacity to seat large groups. Wise’s blazing hearth is the focal point of a lively exhibition kitchen, where 14 reservation-only seats give weekend diners a wide-eyed view behind the proverbial culinary curtain.
Scanning the heavy leather-bound menu, you’ll see oysters, hamachi poke, crab legs and seafood towers. Homemade apple butter simply made from apples, cinnamon and a long stew plays well with creamy burrata and sunchokes two ways, roasted and fried. Scallops aguachile are fresh and zesty. Succulent chicken-fried quail is stuffed with cornbread on a bed of local beans and cabbage. And every table in the formal dining area is topped with a tempting loaf of bread (available for purchase): Think warm, comforting slices of housemade sourdough, a slick of butter, sea salt crystals like fireworks and zero regrets. Charred Caulini, a cauliflower-broccoli hybrid from the shared plates selection, is dotted with currants and smoked almonds, and a swipe of shallot vinaigrette adds extra umami. Thinking of the cinematic series Salt Fat Acid Heat’s premise that optimal flavor is found when these very characteristics are present, I find the Caulini a fitting archetype.
After polishing off a citrusy, low-proof Wagoneer cocktail, I’m asked if I would I like another. The branzino—served silky, deboned, whole—is en route. After minimal debate, so is a glass of Albariño. For some, pork can possess an overwhelming gravitational pull, and the Duroc pork chop with black garlic, roasted Brussels sprouts and potatoes would be no exception, except when one is attempting a seafood theme for the evening.
The fish is on the table, and the Caulini’s crunch adds balanced texture to the branzino. My stomach pleads no more after this, but I find a sweet top-off possible when I peruse the tempting dessert menu. Maybe I find room because executive pastry chef Jeremy Harville’s treats are something to linger over and take a bit of time to arrive, notes Schwob. Harville’s cannoli cones are piped with apricot jam and a dab of nutty ice cream. Three of these petite cones arrive sprinkled with sea salt, just one of many thoughtful and well-balanced details threaded throughout Fort Oak’s dining experience. Wise believes allegiance to consistency is an essential ingredient to success.
1011 Fort Stockton Drive, 619.722.3398
Dinner: Sun.-Thu., 5-9pm; Fri.-Sat., 5-10pm
Brunch: Sat.-Sun., 9am-2pm