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Review: Oak Steakhouse brings new school update to classic American steakhouse

Oak Steakhouse in downtown Raleigh serves a bone-in USDA Prime rib-eye that will set you back upwards of $80, but itÕs a 32-ounce slab that will easily satisfy two ravenous carnivores.
Oak Steakhouse in downtown Raleigh serves a bone-in USDA Prime rib-eye that will set you back upwards of $80, but itÕs a 32-ounce slab that will easily satisfy two ravenous carnivores. jleonard@newsobserver.com

By the time you read this, the seasonal salad of NC peaches and burrata Oak Steakhouse might be history. But there’s a reasonable chance that the heirloom tomato gazpacho terrine may still be in the offing. If it is, don’t pass up what may well be your last chance this year to celebrate the taste of summer.

And what a celebration it is: thin slices of ripe tomato set like so many jewels in a block of sparkling clear aspic, set on a canvas of white gazpacho and colossal lump crabmeat.

Maybe you’re just looking for something to nibble alongside one of the house cocktails — the Oak Smoked Manhattan, say, or an elderflower-tinged French 75. You need look no further than deviled eggs, each topped with a fried oyster, and garnished with what for all the world looks like a small cluster of salmon roe — but turns out to be beads of hot sauce, created by the magic of modern culinary science.

Unless you’re feeling adventurous, in which case may I suggest the Vietnamese-style crispy pig ears, tossed with fried garlic, toasted sesame and chiles. If the thought of pig ears makes you squeamish, just tell yourself that you’re eating cracklings, which these crispy ribbons of porky goodness resemble.

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Oak Steakhouse in downtown Raleigh serves the most elegant take on a key lime icebox pie youÕre ever likely to see, enrobed in brown butter-enriched crushed saltines and garnished with compressed peaches and dollops of juniper-scented whipped cream. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

In a similarly atavistic vein, an order of roasted bone marrow produces two massive bones, lightly dusted with herbed bread crumbs. Escargots (sans shells) scattered across the dish reinforce the earthy richness of the dish, and pickled golden raisins play pungent counterpoint to the unctuous marrow. Slices of grilled bread come in handy for sopping up every drop of the mingled juices in the bottom of the baking dish.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, you can count on a refreshingly different vegetarian offering. Recently, that meant NC sweet corn agnolotti with chanterelles, heirloom grape tomatoes and baby squash. If that whets your palate for a vegetarian entree, though, you’re out of luck unless you want to assemble one from the list of a la carte sides. That’s a glaring omission in this day and age, even for a steakhouse.

If you’re a meat eater, though, the world is your oysters Rockefeller, followed by an entree offering that spans the globe from coq au vin to Maine lobster low country boil to Carolina Heritage pork croquette with sour corn succotash, polenta and pork jus. The daily fresh catch is similarly freewheeling, casting its nets for less well-known, under-appreciated fish — recently, pan-seared South Carolina wreckfish with fried pickled okra, warmed Sun Gold tomatoes, blistered shishito peppers and sweet corn sauce.

“But wait,” I can hear you muttering to yourself. “I thought this was a steakhouse.”

It is, but not in the traditional sense. Oak Steakhouse is an update of the classic American steakhouse. Located in The Dillon in Raleigh’s downtown Warehouse District, Oak Steakhouse is a property of South Carolina-based Indigo Road Hospitality Group, which also owns O-Ku next door. In addition to the core steakhouse offering (which is the same at all locations), each location offers a different chef-driven menu aimed at appealing to a broader contemporary audience.

In Raleigh, executive chef Todd Woods is a 20-year veteran whose career highlights include a feature in Garden & Gun magazine, and an invitation to cook at the James Beard House in New York. His seasonally changing menu at Oak Steakhouse offers ample evidence of his versatility.

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Executive chef Todd Woods plates the heirloom tomato gazpacho terrine at Oak Steakhouse in downtown Raleigh. The dish is made up of thin slices of ripe tomato set like so many jewels in a block of sparkling clear aspic and set on a canvas of white gazpacho and colossal lump crabmeat. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Woods and his crew can grill a mean steak, too. The bone-in USDA Prime rib-eye will set you back upwards of $80, but it’s a 32-ounce slab that will easily satisfy two ravenous carnivores. Gild the lily if you like with a lump crab Oscar or a grilled lobster tail, and your choice of sauce (10 options, from house steak sauce to wild ramp butter).

You’ll also find the usual boneless cuts — typically, Prime rib-eye, Prime New York strip, filet mignon and hanger steak. But if you’re a filet fan, consider springing for an extra 10 bucks or so for the beef Wellington. Or better still, tournedos Rossini: rosy medallions of filet, each set on buttered brioche and capped with foie gras, the whole thing glazed with a rich black truffle demi.

If that’s a little rich for your blood, the humble steak frites won’t let you down. Featuring sirloin cap (a seldom-seen and under-appreciated cut), the steak is served with excellent truffle fries and béarnaise sauce on the side.

Kitchen misfires are infrequent, but more common than you’d like to see at this price point. Soupy wilted spinach comes to mind, and roasted mushrooms that needed salt. Also foie gras and chicken liver terrine that arrived so cold it was crumbly. And a tough crust on an otherwise excellent chocolate chess pie.

Ricotta zeppole, served on a cloud of lemon confit and white chocolate crémeux, is a better bet for dessert. Or the most elegant take on a key lime icebox pie you’re ever likely to see, enrobed in brown butter-enriched crushed saltines and garnished with compressed peaches and dollops of juniper-scented whipped cream.

Like the menu, the dining room decor at Oak Steakhouse is an update of the traditional steakhouse look. The elements are familiar — leather upholstery, stone and wood — but the look is contemporary and airy. Until the evening, that is, when the lighting is so low that you may need a little help from your cellphone flashlight to read the menu.

General manager Zach Stewart sets the tone for a well-trained and friendly (but not overbearing) wait staff. Stewart is also the approachable sommelier in charge of an extensive and well-chosen wine selection that includes 18 wines by the glass and nearly 200 bottles. With options ranging from a glass of prosecco to a magnum of Chateauneuf Du Pape, you won’t have trouble finding a wine to accompany your meal — whether the steakhouse experience you’re seeking is old school or new school.



Oak Steakhouse

417 W. Hargett St., Raleigh

984-255-1818

oakraleigh.com

Cuisine: steakhouse, contemporary

Rating: 3 1/2 stars

Prices: $$$$

Atmosphere: contemporary

Noise level: moderate

Service: well-trained

Recommended: deviled eggs, crispy pig ears, heirloom tomatoes, steaks, tournedos Rossini, ricotta zeppole, key lime icebox pie

Open: Dinner nightly.

Reservations: recommended on weekends

Other: full bar; accommodates children; minimal vegetarian selection; complimentary valet parking; wheelchair accessible.

The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.

The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.

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