It's inspiring to see something as ambitious as Live Oak Music Hall & Lounge come along. Owner Bill Smith's vision of a classy live-music venue with a chef-driven menu aimed at graduates of the club scene is appealing -- like a rock version of what Caravan of Dreams once did.
Smith has connections in the music industry, including his son Casey of The Where House, and has done construction on popular venues such as The Usual. But he's learning that running a restaurant-bar is not the same as building one. He recently replaced some staffers and hired operations manager Blake Barker, formerly of Scat Jazz Lounge. Hopefully Barker is up to the task of sharpening the Live Oak experience.
There's room for improvement in the overall flow of the place, from little things like adjusting the inconsistent lighting to the nonstop traffic. Our table was too dark to see our food, but the table next to us blazed under its spotlight. Diners were also witness to a busy parade, consisting of customers headed for an oddly positioned restroom and kitchen staffers making repeated trips to get ice.
In the bar, one oft-used bottle of liquor was stored on a shelf too high, requiring the bar crew to climb up and down every time they needed it. When we tried to ask the bartender for a recommendation on one of the dozens of craft beers Live Oak offers, he was so busy that he avoided eye contact. The place seemed understaffed. Our industrious, eager-to-please server was straining to run from the dining room to the rooftop. It made no sense.
But the food was a pleasant surprise. The vaguely Southwestern menu has some unusual twists, such as the use of water buffalo in burgers and in a chicken-fried version. The beef is listed as grass-fed, and there are half a dozen entree salads, including a stuffed avocado ($14) filled with tuna and chicken salad over mixed greens. This exceeds, by far, your typical bar food.
Calamari ($10) can feel trite, but Live Oak's version incorporated fresh jalapeño slices and thin tobacco onions into that deep-fried mix; they elevated the dish with flavor and heat. The Mid-East trio ($10) was a crazy-big appetizer -- large enough for four to split -- with three Middle Eastern dips and a bowl of pita triangles, soft and warm. The trio consisted of a pale and creamy hummus, plus a roughly chopped tabouli salad with chunks of cucumber and tomato. Dip No. 3 was muhammara, a rustic hot-pepper puree with random chopped nuts.
Hush puppies ($5), five to an order, were house-made and very good, although they seemed like an odd appetizer. They were perfect circles with extra-crunchy crusts and solid cornmeal centers; oddly, they came with tartar sauce. Two come automatically with the fish and chips ($16), so be forewarned unless you really like hush puppies.
The fish in the fish and chips was walleye, a northern white fish with a subtle crispness to the flavor. The server said the crust came from a beer batter, but it didn't have the thick, crunchy texture you might expect. Instead, it was a thin, darker crust that was difficult to break with a fork. Fries were long, curly strings, a little undercooked in places, but still fun to eat and full of potato flavor.
The chicken-fried water buffalo ($22) had a thicker, softer crust, and the meat itself was quite tender. It was more like a breaded cutlet than a chicken-fried steak. The surprise was how underseasoned it seemed, as if it had been cooked without salt or pepper. It came with buttery mashed potatoes, with bits of potato still evident, and a vegetable medley -- zucchini and yellow squash, mostly, but happily not overcooked.
Entrees come with choice of house or Caesar salad, and those were both good, with hand-torn greens and house-made dressing; the Caesar came topped with thick shavings of Parmesan. Chef Mikel Steen previously worked at the Fort Worth Boat Club. You can see the thoughtfulness in the kitchen, even if the results aren't always consistent.
One of Live Oak's early bumps has reaped an immediate benefit for craft-beer fans. Optimistic about the viability of craft brews, the place opened with a big selection of bottles. But the anticipated sales didn't happen, so the bar has been paring down its selection and offering it at a deep discount. We got a bottle of the very crafty Le Merle Saison Farmhouse Ale for only $8. Live Oak's journey may have started a little rocky, but this is the kind of stumble a diner can like.