Oak + Char (Chicago)

Oak + Char is one of the few new restaurants that is getting consistent word-of-mouth praise. And after reading the review by Redeye’s Michael Nagrant — with whom I normally agree about restaurants — I knew I had to go. I’ve never had Chef Joseph Heppe’s food at Untitled so I had no preconceived notions walking in Oak + Char other than that the menu on-line looked interesting.

As for the pantaloon lights, aesthetics aside, I suspect they are there for one main reason — to help absorb the deafening noise in the restaurant. I could barely hear my server above the roar of the crowd and the loud club music, who despite telling him  I couldn’t hear him — never bothered to raise his voice. Just one of many service gaffes that took away from what would have been a much better meal.

In a way, my experience at Oak + Char exemplifies what is wrong with a lot of Chicago’s more ambitious restaurants — the front of the house is way out of step with the back. There is some talent here in the kitchen, and I can see why Nagrant classifies this chef as one to watch. I didn’t spring for the $100 32-ounce ribeye, but instead ordered the highly-touted rye-cured duck and cider-brined pork collar from the “large plates” menu. The proteins themselves were perfectly done — the rye flavors complemented an otherwise simply treated, perfectly prepared medium-rare duck with crispy, rendered skin. The cider-brined pork collar, while a tad over-salted, was explosively rich and tender. However, both proteins were marred by several messy garnishes on the plate that were overly sweet and complicated, and further, dated the dishes into the mid-00’s. (In fact, I went back and looked at the picture of Nagrant’s duck in Redeye, and that dish’s accompaniments were significantly simpler, so I don’t know if the kitchen has since changed the dish.) I think some deletions of the garnishes — or maybe reconstructing the plating — would give the well-prepared proteins their due.

We got the spiel in the beginning (or what I could hear of it) about shared plates. Unfortunately, I am so schooled in this spiel, common across Chicago, that I understood exactly was the server was saying about it, even if I could only hear his every third word. It boils down to whatever you order is shareable, and the kitchen will “try” to course it, but really everything comes out at once. And, yes, that’s mostly what happened.

Since the entrees were so generously portioned, we ordered a couple of snacks to complement the meal. (The highly-regarded ravioli was sold out for the night.) Almost as soon as we enunciated the order, they came out to the table, so I can only assume that the snacks are being held, pre-prepared, in the kitchen. The pecorino arancini was structurally unsound and broke apart with the slightest prodding; it was also missing the textural contrast of the chewy rice and soft cheese. The charred burrata was fine, but the portion was too small compared to the abundant portion of thick, toasted naan bread that was served with it. Both appetizers, though, were barely warm, and in the case of the arancini, poorly constructed.

Like a lot of Chicago restaurants, the wine list is an afterthought, and the brief by-the-glass list doesn’t label which wines are red, white, rose or sparkling, and arranges the reds at the top, and the sparkling wines at the bottom. Why confuse diners by setting up the BTG list this way?

The service, though, was indifferent to hostile, rushed and overall inexperienced. They seemed easily confused by questions, and not ready to recommend wines. When the food and wine came out, it was loudly and quickly thrown on the table, haphazardly (a wine glass placed square in front of my chest, another off to the far end of the table).  No matter how good the food may be, this level of service will always delete from the experience. Having said that, I think that Oak + Char is appealing to a younger crowd that is not as concerned with things like wine, plating and service–and I suspect, would be just as happy eating casual food from Hub 51 as they would the more finessed food of Chef Heppe.