Oak + Char. I think you mean Oak + Charming?
I wasn’t really sure what to expect visiting this new “Modern Midwestern” spot in the old Graham Elliot space. I had spent many-a-meal in GE’s dining room and when I heard the folks finally filling its space was a team from MBL Hospitality, I had to look them up. With roots at Untitled, and an executive chef carried over from its kitchen, they certainly aren’t neophytes, but still burgeoning? Perhaps.
Upon entering Oak + Char you can’t help but notice the pantaloons hanging from the ceiling. Or are they jellyfish? Maybe clouds? Whatever they are, they command notice and – if I’m being honest – are bordering on distracting. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them. The décor has very much been transformed since the days of yore, I’m just not sure it speaks the same modern midwestern language as the restaurant’s concept.
Lack of communal tables and industrial lighting aside, the space is warm, welcoming and beyond bustling. Tables were full on a Tuesday evening (pro tip: make a reservation) and the fervor was unmistakable. Being in a restaurant with that much energy is just… fun. This would be a cool spot for a date night, or GNO, alike.
The Oak + Char menu is designed for sharing which always makes me giddy. Sharing plates is really just code for “go ahead, get everything on the menu, don’t feel bad, you’re sharing!” Ok, if you insist.
Oak sets up their sharing dishes into a small handful of easy-to-navigate categories: snacks, small, large and chef’s boards. Chef’s boards are actually the Big Kahuna items of the menu and not at all the charcuterie and cheese presentations I thought they would be. Think market price seasonal specialties like whole crispy fish and roasted foie gras.
I skipped the chef’s boards in an effort to divide and conquer the snacks, small and large plates. Almost everything was on point.
From the snacks group, I tried the pork trotter spring rolls, MSG chicken wings and the tandoori shishito peppers.
Don’t worry, the MSG acronym on the menu frightened me, too.
The MSG in the wings is actually Maple · Sherry · Gochujang chili. A wonderful play on a sweet, spicy, tangy flavor profile. Everythang a wang should be! Easily the best “snack” had. The crunch on the wings, and the glaze that develops from layers of saucing, makes for such a finger-lickin’, tasty delight. These aren’t to be missed.
Wish I could say the same for the shishito peppers. This snack was a bit of a dud. The peppers lacked seasoning and heat, and the Indian-influenced peanut romesco was a bit too cloying for peppers missing any real wallop. The womp, womp award goes to these guys.
The pork trotter spring rolls served with a lime tahini sauce were fabulously finger-friendly and the one item that actually felt totally snack-like. I loved the salty bite mixed with the citrusy sauce, it was a great use of lime to balance the richness of, um, pork’s feet. Whatever. I ain’t skurred. Yum.
From the small plates I picked the apple and pomegranate salad as a bit of a palate cleanser and ended up adoring it! The salad was bright, clean, and had lovely little bits of aged cheddar, walnuts and pumpernickel croutons throughout. Whomever thinks that salad is boring has yet to meet this beauty. I hope it stays on the menu for a long time. This feels like a Spring/Summer staple for my future visits.
Next up was the ravioli doppio. Ravioli with celery root, maitake mushrooms, hazlenuts and a truffle fondue. This is where dinner finally took a decidedly un-Asian turn and I started to feel a bit more nuance and variety coming out of the kitchen. This was my kind of dish. Punchy, earthy, nutty and comforting. Being enveloped in wafting truffle might be my favorite sensory experience ever. Yes, even above buying new shoes. Unless we are talking truffle-scented shoes.
This dish won me over and tasted like a delicate kiss. I want it again, if you can’t tell.
At this point I’m a little embarrassed that there’s more (yes, there’s more!) but, it’s sharing, and I couldn’t miss participation in the large plates.
From the “large” selection the double prime cheeseburger and smoked chicken were had. Both were standouts and phenomenally well-executed. If I had to pick a frontrunner, well, I couldn’t. The dishes are so different and singular that you just need to have both.
For the burger lovers, I hate to do a comparison of another restaurant, but I’m gonna. This burger rivals (and has remarkable similarities) to the highly acclaimed burget at Au Cheval. It’s the perfect diner-style burger. Oniony, creamy, cheesy, moist. Intentionally void of lettuce and tomato. A cheeseburger nirvana nestled up to house chips that I admittedly forgot all about.
Drool. Eat. Repeat. But do NOT delete from your order.
And then there was the smoked chicken.
Just look at it. I feel the picture does it more justice than I could in a gross overuse of food-forward adjectives (I’m looking at you savory, velvety, aromatic and luscious).
The chicken is a pièce de résistance. That skin. The perfectly soft, yolky egg. The crispy potatoes and their piquant kale pesto. The flavor. It’s a big dish, with big flavors and is most certainly the embodiment of “modern midwestern.” If I didn’t find it in the lighting, or the asian snacks, I found it here. In a plate full of smoky, meaty bliss.
Well done, Oak + Char. I took the long road, but I got there.
Oak + Char | 217 W Huron | Chicago | IL | 60654