Dallas' design district has been bookmarked for a few years now as a candidate for the next hot 'hood. The area is seeing a slew of trendy new apartment buildings springing up, and it boasts Meddlesome Moth, one of the biggest craft-beer bars in the city.
As of December, it has an "It" restaurant, too. Chic, tan and elegant, Oak embodies its neighborhood, like a California girl says Malibu. Designed by Royce Ring and Alex Urrunaga of Plan B, who did Bolsa and Whiskey Cake, with owners Richard and Tiffanee Ellman, the interior is a stunner, with opulent fittings and personal touches.
Caramel-colored banquettes feel like couches. Chairs and barstools come slightly oversized; they help define your personal space. Lights swoop in on dramatic arches or hang over your table like a ball of sparkling tinsel. The wallpaper has an oak pattern, but of course it's subtle, darling; you have to get up close to see it. The real talker is the image on the back wall of a stately oak tree. It looks like a painting but it's ... moving? It's actually a video loop in which the leaves move ever so slightly. It's seasonal: There are versions for winter and summer.
The tastefulness extended to plate presentation, too. The kitchen composes each dish carefully, leaving lots of white space so that what's on the plate pops.
Part of what made Oak such a positive experience is that it was somewhat unexpected. While chef Jason Maddy has worked at notable restaurants, including Danube in New York, the Driskill Hotel in Austin and the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek, he was not a known quantity on his own.
A basic baby greens salad ($8) got extra interest from chewy-sweet slices of Medjool date and a sprinkling of smoked almonds. A composition of beets ($8) almost sacrificed function for form. Baby beets, gold and purple, were sliced in half and topped with baby greens that were so carefully arranged, you almost felt guilty messing them up.
The coolest thing on the plate was a beet terrine: A golden beet was cut into thin slices and compressed into a rectangle, with a thick layer of horseradish cream in the center. It looked like a slice of cake with a layer of frosting. The thin layers of beet stayed together on the fork, but slid apart in your mouth -- a neat textural experience.
The hands-down pick for adventurous foodies was the starter of Moroccan octopus and pork jowls ($11), an unlikely pairing that seemed to say "I dare you." If the risk seemed high, so was the payoff. It came on a long rectangular dish, with pork playfully interspersed with octopus and drizzled with a kelly-green cilantro emulsion. This was about the contrast of textures -- the squares of pork were melt-in-your-mouth tender, while the octopus had blackened edges and a chewy-firm heft.
Spring pea risotto ($10) was the epitome of a seasonal dish with its pale green color and inclusion of fat, round, barely-cooked peas that popped in the mouth when you bit them. Baby greens were scattered in a pretty ring around the circumference of the dish, and the al dente rice came flecked with bits of tangy serrano ham.
Most every restaurant feels it needs a big beef dish, but Oak righteously avoided the trite rib-eye and instead offered a duo of Kobe ($26): on one side, four soft tri-tip medallions, pink in the center, black on the edge; on the other, fall-apart-tender cheeks, like short rib but with a little extra spring. On the side came quark spaetzle, made with German quark cheese, plus chunks of carrot and baby cipollini onions, roasted until soft and brown.
Chicken ($19) is often something you order last, but at Oak, you should order it first. It combined a breast and a thigh with a standout treatment. The chicken was pressed flat, then filled with savory masa to form a kind of chicken-and-masa sandwich, and sauced with a wonderfully complex molé.
Halibut ($28) was a big, square slab of pristine white fish with a crust, accompanied by an assortment of vegetables that were exactly of the moment, of winter turning to spring, with turnip, fresh fava beans and asparagus. Its only flaw was a smoked romesco sauce whose overwhelming flavor and slight pungency seemed out of balance.
Desserts were just as finicky and artful, a clear sign that there was a pastry chef in the house, Sarah Green. Most had a variety of components: If the sweet-salty flavor juxtaposition of the salted caramel brulee ($8) weren't enough, it also came with a wee glass of milk and a stack of shortbread cookies. Gianduja chocolate panna cotta ($8) was excellent: a pyramid dome of rich chocolate-hazelnut cream sitting atop a hazelnut blondie with Patrón Citronge ice cream.
Oak's customers were a surprisingly broad mix that skewed slightly older than might be expected, but the cocktails were exactly what you'd anticipate, with amusingly overwrought names like the Antoinette and the Gemstone. Points to you if you can order the Distinguished District Man ($12) with scotch, clover honey and bitters, with a straight face. Hey, this is the design district -- you can pull it off.