New Wine Bar Spreads Its Roots
Oak Street has changed dramatically in the past five years. Using a plan that emphasizes community involvement in revitalization of neighborhoods called the Main Street Approach, the Oak Street Association has given the street a face-lift, bringing in new businesses and hosting the annual New Orleans Po-Boy Preservation Festival.
One of the most recent additions to the street is Oak, a wine bar and restaurant that took over a space that was once an antiques store. The renovation to the interior of the space mirrors the extensive changes to the street outside. The large single dining room is decorated in light shades of tan and brown, with accents of burgundy on the upholstered chairs, and a high, well-lit ceiling gives the room a sense of openness. The rear wall is dominated by a large U-shaped bar that’s the focus of the room.
That’s appropriate, of course, for a place where drinks are every bit as important as the food. Specialty cocktails are named for jazz musicians and include the Louis Prima, which is Pimm’s, Proseco and a fresh cucumber spear; the Edith Piaf, which is made of Barsol pisco, white wine and muddled fresh grapes; and the Ma Rainey, which is Hendricks gin, muddled cucumber, soda water, Peychaud’s bitters and a splash of 7UP.
The wine list is extensive and divided into unusual categories. Wines such as sauvignon blanc, Pinot Grigio and Grüner Veltliner are found under the heading “Splendors in the Grass.” Pinot noir, Grenache, Malbec and similar wines are listed in “Herbs and Smoke.” Michelle Gueydan, formerly a sommelier at Restaurant August, is responsible for the wine and also serves as Oak’s general manager. Many of the wines are available by the glass, with prices ranging from $6 to $15. The menu also has three flights of three 2.5-ounce glasses available. At the moment the flights are three sparkling wines; three sakes; or a selection of one each of red, white and rosé wines.
The sakes are an excellent pairing with the grilled Korean short ribs, one of the better items on the food menu. They include a Junmai, in which the rice used to brew the wine is polished to 65 percent; a Junmai Ginjo, polished to 73 percent; and an unfiltered Junmai Ginjo Negori, also 73 percent. Each was a bit sweet, but the tastes ranged from slightly floral to somewhat creamy. The aforementioned ribs, along with the rest of the food, are the work of Aaron Burgau of Restaurant Patois. Burgau serves as a consultant to Oak and both designed the small-plates menu and hired the kitchen staff. He plans to spend some time in the kitchen as well, and I ran into him when I dined at Oak recently.
There isn’t really a defined theme to the menu at Oak. You can order fresh-cut fries with a green onion aioli or pupusas stuffed with carnitas and black beans that come with a spicy slaw and some of the best tomato-chile salsa I’ve ever tasted. One of the more interesting items on the menu is the fried goat cheese curds from Ryals dairy. The small squares of mild cheese are dusted in cornmeal before being fried and served with a little thinly sliced Spanish chorizo and a romesco sauce. The chewy tidbits of cheese are what the fried cheese sticks at sports bars aspire to be, and the pairing of the curds with the slightly spicy, slightly tart sausage is a good one.
Fried baby artichokes, grilled eggplant, edamame hummus, arugula, feta cheese and grilled piadina bread comprise one of the two “market-inspired” items on the menu, the other being a salad of mixed greens with spiced pecans, cheddar from Ryals and a pickled-peach vinaigrette. Under “From the Sea…” on the menu, there is a fried calamari salad with fresh herbs, radishes, heirloom lettuces and a soy-ginger dressing and a dish of charred baby octopus with Serrano ham and potato salad. The octopus was tender, with just a bit of crispness from the grill, and it paired amazingly well with the salty ham and cool, creamy potato salad. Burgau told me that he poaches the octopus in a court bouillon before charring them. Whatever he does, it’s outstanding and definitely something I’ll order again.
Duck confit salad with arugula, bruléed figs and a fig-balsamic vinaigrette shows up on the “From the Land” section of the menu, along with pied de cochon that’s served with some more arugula, a poached farm egg and gribiche sauce. The meat from the pig’s foot is shredded, pressed into an oblong disk and then battered and fried before being topped with the poached egg. Gribiche sauce, which is something like tartar sauce, provides some creaminess and a little tartness to the dish, which is finished with the arugula and some slices of pickled chiles.
The last dish I sampled was the grilled Korean-style short ribs. The beef ribs are cut thinly, flanken style, and marinated before hitting the grill. They are served over house-made kimchi and garnished with sesame seeds and fresh herbs –– cilantro and basil when I tried them. I’m a sucker for Korean barbecue, and these ribs did not disappoint.
The folks behind the bar knew their craft, and service was very good generally. That’s due in no small part to Gueydan’s near-constant presence in the dining room, but it’s also the result of some smart hiring practices. The restaurant is owned by Katie Winters and Shawn Haddad, and they should be credited for the smooth opening. If they could put a sign up on the façade, things would be perfect.
Oak is open from Tuesday through Sunday from 5 p.m. until around 10 p.m. The restaurant’s Web site is not fully realized as of this writing, but it promises updates, including musical offerings. Call Oak at 302-1485 for more information.