Food & Drink

Review: Menu makeover shows bourbon bar The Oak is mellowing

On the wall behind the bar, to the right of a double row of liquor bottles, a chalkboard lists the premium and small batch bourbons that occupy the top shelf. The list has grown steadily since The Oak opened in April, and now numbers more than 20 – more than sufficient to justify the establishment’s billing as a bourbon bar.

But the chalkboard doesn’t tell the whole story; you’ll find that at the other end of the bar, where ranks of small wooden barrels perch on bracket shelves. Made of American white oak and ranging in size from 1 to 10 liters, these contain the bar’s house-aged bourbons.

You can “adopt” a barrel for a price, reserving its contents – options range from Maker’s Mark to Woodford Reserve – for your own private use.

If that price (starting at $275 for a 1-liter barrel, plus $1 per shot) is a little steep for your budget, you can order a tasting flight, where a sample of the house bourbon will only set you back 5 bucks.

Just be advised that, alongside the likes of Basil Hayden’s and Knob Creek straight from the bottle, the home brew comes off a little rough around the edges.

Even granting the “smaller the barrel, the faster the aging” theory, it’s my guess as a longtime bourbon sipper that the source – a distiller in Philadelphia, according to general manager Hali Haught – also plays an important role in the final product.

On the other hand, the house bourbon makes a fine Old Fashioned. Ask the bartender to make you one with plum bitters.

You can sip it while you tuck into a plate of slow-roasted Heritage Farms pork belly. I’m not the only fan of this dish, evidently, as it’s one of just a handful of starters to survive a wholesale menu makeover – which, as luck would have it, took place just after my most recent visit.

I liked the black-eyed pea cake, too, but that one’s history. If the black-eyed pea hummus that’s taken its place on the new menu doesn’t scratch the vegetarian itch, maybe the autumn squash salad with curried goat cheese and toasted pumpkin seeds will do the trick.

I must say I won’t miss the shrimp cocktail, whose overcooked specimens were especially disappointing, given the menu description of “large wild caught NC shrimp.”

I’d give the mahi mahi tacos on the new menu a shot, though. The Southern-style deviled eggs look tempting, too. So does beef tartare topped with a quail egg, and pork sliders on buns from local newcomer bakery Boulted Bread.

The entree list has undergone a similarly extensive makeover. The jumbo crab cake was jettisoned, but the seared rare ahi tuna was kept on board with minor revisions.

Same goes for the sous vide pork tenderloin, a dish that is sure to be improved by replacing the Swiss chard accompaniment (gritty when I sampled it) with sweet potato cornbread and fried Brussels sprouts.

It’s a good bet, too, that the hand-cut petit filet will be a step up from the flank steak it replaces, a dish whose preparation (pre-cooking, then slicing and finishing to order on the grill, according to the server) made it chewier than it had to be.

Happily, one thing that won’t change is the dessert offering. Rather, the featured sweet temptation will continue to change on a rotating basis, but you can be pretty sure it will be a house-baked cake. Regardless of the flavor of the day – chocolate chipotle, say, or a six-layer chocolate cake with Reese’s peanut butter frosting – it will be big enough to share.

The menu will change every three or four months, according to Haught, but I suspect the extensive nature of the most recent change is at least partly a reflection of turnover in the kitchen.

Chef Benjamin Webb, who took over in the summer, shows promise but appears to be still finding his footing.

Same goes for a wait staff who are uniformly enthusiastic but at different points in the learning curve.

Taking its cue from the restaurant’s name, the dining room’s rough plank walls make for a rustically cozy look. But they do little to dampen the decibels reflecting off floor-to-ceiling windows, high ceilings with exposed ductwork, and a poured concrete bar. In even marginally cooperative weather, an attractive heated patio beckons.

Like the bourbon in those barrels behind the bar, The Oak is still a little rough around the edges.

The restaurant clearly shows potential, though, and given the track record of its owners – who also own Taste, a hidden gem of a tapas and wine bar on Medlin Drive – I’d say The Oak’s chances of mellowing with time are good. or