Whither Oak? Consider the moves since its opening in December 2011 under execuchef Jason Maddy (culled from The Mansion) and sous chef Brian Zenner (also from The Mansion) . When the couple behind Oak, Richard and Tiffanee Ellman, decided to open the quirkily-named Belly and Trumpet in February 2013, Zenner was their man to be execuchef. However, for some reason he remained as sous at Oak until April. Then Thomas Gray took that position. At that point in time things sped up. Just a month later Maddy left Oak for unexplained health reasons. Gray improvised until July when Richard Gras was hired as the permanent replacement. Gras, whose background had mainly been at large luxury hotels, lasted a year at the relatively small Oak before moving back to Pier A in New York City. The Ellman’s immediately moved Zenner back as execuchef at Oak.
In addition, over the same period (August 2013), the Ellmans opened a modern Thai restaurant, Pakpao Thai, and suffered a split with the inaugural chef at that venture just six months later.
Canary Melon Salad
Amid all these musical chairs, Zenner has been something of a rock. He must have impressed under Maddy to be offered the execuchef slot at Belly and Trumpet. He helped out at Oak until a replacement was hired. That in the quarter before Maddy abruptly left. New hire Gray had impeccable pedigree (The French Room, Michael Mina, La Folie) but Maddy’s departure occurred 30-days after he started, so I suspect Zenner was a major help there too, as well as with Graf’s onboarding. Upon Graf’s sudden departure of the flagship last month, Zenner stepped back into the executive chef position, apparently leaving a well-trained crew at Belly and Trumpet.
Despite this impressive record, Zenner does not walk on water quite as much as Belly and Trumpet’s web site claims. It has him execuchefing there since early 2012. Since that was a year before the restaurant opened, it would have been an astonishing achievement “Well, my approach to cooking might be called smashing the space-time continuum. For one thing, doing vegetables eight months ahead of service makes prep. less hectic…”.
This week, the media were invited to Oak so see Zenner’s new menu. I was curious as he had only been there a month. Plus, Graf was a good chef (I had two meals at Oak under his tutelage and they both wowed the skeptical California winemakers that I was with who were used to eating in San Francisco and wine country). Zenner would be competing with the memories of those good times.
Summarising, Oak put on one hell of a show. The whole menu is new, all in just one month. This is not some kind of Zennerphobia but, rather, a completely understandable stamping of his mark on the restaurant where he has risen to be in charge. Oak presented the change through nine courses of small plate impressions of items on the new menu.
The amuse bouche placed a mouthful of compressed Canary Melon served on a bed of charred pepita (pumpkin seeds) and topped with a relish formed from dried, roasted guajillo peppers mixed with onion, garlic and lime juice. A frond of almost gratuitous cilantro helped our cameras focus. A wafer-thin slice of cotija cheese bedecked all this as though put there by an architect with a grudge against curves. Deconstructed vertically, this creation placed bitterness at the bottom, fruitiness in the middle, and sweetness at the top. There was a lot going on for just one mouthful, and how sad that it suffered the nutrient’s fate of being first, and therefore forgotten when the smartphone-wielding peeps were asked their favorite dish of the meal.
I call it inspired.
Next it was crudo (that’s sashimi in popular parlance) and the most photogenic dish of the night. A smear of black garlic and dashi gelée took advantage of the mildness of black garlic (despite its intense color). A wedge of seasoned and strategically positioned tuna was topped with a gremolata that whacked the usual lime, orange, lemon and parsley combination with horseradish (a bow to wasabi?) and added queen of Siam basil from a local gardener named Chris (Taylor? Lost his name amid the background noise).
It all made for a hearty mouthful, and wishing for more.
A plate of A5 Miyazaki Carpaccio was “all about the meat”, in Zenner’s words. Miyazaki A5 Wagyu is the highest grade of Wagyu from Miyazaki prefecture. Zenner prepared it with just salt and pepper, caper, locally sourced arugula, parmesan and a little olive oil and balsamic. Enjoy this carpaccio with care. It;s luscious fattiness is normally $20 an ounce.
Next came a bold dish. Grilled Greek sardines with piquillo pepper and marcona almonds in a kind of concasse. It is hard to find sardines around town, presumably because they are hard to sell. I hope Dallasites try this rendition. An odd thing was the dish design. The sardines on one end of the dish had a juxtaposed tower on the other end that consisted of very finely mashed potato cast into the shape of a hockey puck and topped with a poached chicken egg. That tower was an ethereal blending of flavors, but what did it have to do with the sardines? I would have omitted the egg and combined the two sides into an inventive mashup (sorry) of a Peruvian Causa such as found in traditional garb at El Tesoro or, in more surrealist terms, at San Salvaje.
The odd coupling continued in the next course, Berkshire short rib and east coast squid. Again, impressive individual ingredients comprised of melt in the mouth short rib with a crispy crackling on the edge and sweet al dente squid. But why on the same plate? The excellent squash blossom could be split 50/50 in the divorce and the pork would get the green mole and aji panca smear, but not the sweet corn (although it had a claim to it). In short, I love all these ingredients taken separately but putting them together is like putting the cast of ‘Animal House’ in charge of the Smithsonian.
The branzino with tomato confit, picholine olive, fingerling potato with oregano, sautéed chard and ladolemono (lemon-olive oil sauce) comes strongly recommended. Several folks regarded this as their favorite dish of the night.
Monkfish atop cured and sous vide-cooked pork belly, accompanied by caramelized salsify, Canadian chanterelles, apricot and bacon jus was another combination of individually magnificent but collectively incongruous ingredients (the monkfish and pork belly). Interestingly, Zenner reports no problem selling monkfish to Dallas palates. He prepares it by filleting, wrapping in caul fat and searing.
Finally, the beef short rib with marrow casoncelli, beech mushroom, kale and consommé is a winner and notable for the marrow bone. It is shaped like casoncelli pasta shells (hence the name) but the taste is unmistakably marrow with all the earthiness and melting glutinous animal fat particles you would expect. This is a Dallas dish that steps outside the box.
With failing light my camera did not do justice to the desserts of Lucia Merino, who is not just one of the least known pastry chefs around town but actually one of the best. My awful photo hides (rather than shows) a chocolate tart loaded with dulche de leche, milk and silky-smooth banana ice cream (made without including any of the pulp). Save room for dessert when you go to Oak.
Oak’s web site is unusual for restaurants like it in that the word ‘local’ does not appear once. In one sense, that is welcome because it says that quality trumps origin. However, that should not disqualify a search in your own backyard when the local product is better. Zenner seemed to source food items locally when he could but on the wine list I would replace the Penner Ash Viognier ($68) with Brennan Vineyards Texas Viognier ($42 at the 3x retail markup that Oak appears to follow). The moderate-sized list is otherwise well-chosen.
The long-story-short on Oak is that Brian Zenner has undoubtedly made his mark. If the menu looks like Belly and Trumpet then that is no accident. It is great choice for business meals, date night and friends in from out-of-town who think people in Texas just eat chile and go to work on a horse. Oak’s food refinement and sophisticated decor will thoroughly disabuse them of such misconceptions.