Lacquered with a glaze as dark as molasses, the umami chicken wings at Oval Park Grille look like they’d be cloying. They’re not. In fact, the sauce is a perfect storm of ingredients known for their umami properties, among them fermented black beans, mushrooms, parmesan, seaweed and fish sauce. An umami tsunami, if you will. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better – or more addictive – example of the savory, meaty “fifth taste” that has in recent years joined sweet, salty, sour, and bitter in the canon of elemental flavors.
You can also get the wings with a traditional Buffalo sauce (spicy or medium), if you prefer, or Jamaican jerk style. A Thai variation offered as a special in July was so popular that it made an encore appearance in early October.
But it isn’t the sauce – not even the umami version – that most separates the wings at Oval Park Grille from the crowd. It’s the confit wings. In order to maximize flavor and juiciness, chef Todd Whitney gives this humble American bar food the classic French treatment of cooking and preserving the wings in fat ahead of time. As a bonus, the time it takes to fry them to order is dramatically decreased.
Leave it to a chef with extensive experience in French restaurants to come up with such an inspired Old World tweak for a New World classic. Most recently, Whitney worked for three years as chef de cuisine at Vin Rouge, which he left to open Oval Park Grille with partner Greg DeMarchi in June.
The chef’s background is evident throughout a daily evolving locavore-focused menu aimed at marrying French bistro and American bar and grill. It’s a challenging target to hit without coming off as too fancy for the casual neighborhood gathering place concept the partners are going for. More often than not, Whitney nails it.
Duck liver mousse, served with Guglhupf pretzels and assorted house pickles, scores a bull’s-eye. So does a shrimp and lobster tostada that more than justifies its $13 price tag with the quality and quantity of both shellfish. And if you’re starting to get burned out on the kale trend, Whitney’s salad of fried Rappahannock River oysters on a bed of grilled kale, tossed with chiles, lime and peanuts, and topped with a cloud of finely grated pecorino Toscano cheese, ought to recharge your enthusiasm.
An entree presentation featuring a pair of flawless Carolina mountain trout filets served over a ragu of fresh-cut-off-the-cob corn and oyster mushrooms is further proof of Whitney’s way with seafood. It pays to listen to your server, too, when she’s reciting the nightly fresh fish special. Your reward might take the form of expertly pan-seared flounder, say, or pompano paired with a light, well-matched sauce tinged with mustard and a medley of roasted pumpkin and radishes.
Burgers are made with a toothsome house-ground blend of brisket, chuck and New York strip ends and served on an excellent brioche bun, but under-seasoning sent the one I ordered recently just wide of the target.
Happily, it isn’t often that the kitchen misses the mark and when it does, it doesn’t miss by much. It’s my guess that the otherwise well-executed hanger steak that was delivered lukewarm to our table can be chalked up to a server who appeared to be overextended.
On the other hand, I couldn’t fault the free-form European style “apple pie” that concluded our meal that night.
Taking its cue from the menu, the atmosphere at Oval Park Grille is casual and inviting (albeit frequently noisy), with lots of honey-toned wood in the dining room and a semi-enclosed patio with communal picnic tables.
Greg DeMarchi, who was formerly bar manager at Vin Rouge, contributes to the convivial mood with a well-stocked bar distinguished by its thoughtfully curated selections of beers, ciders and – a real find in these parts – aperitif wines. DeMarchi credits general manager Nathan Sisco for a delightfully quirky cocktail list that is currently celebrating a Will Ferrell theme with the likes of the Ricky Bobby (Broker’s gin, elderflower liqueur, lime and hopped grapefruit bitters).
Hanging on the wall behind the bar, so big and colorful that it catches your eye as soon as you enter the restaurant, is a painting by Durham artist Darius Quarles. In the lower left of the painting, the bar and barstools at Oval Park Grille look out over a pastiche of local landmarks overlaid on an old map of the section of Durham where the restaurant now makes its home.
This is your neighborhood, the painting seems to say. Pull up a stool and enjoy it.
I, for one, am happy to accept the invitation.