Instant classic: Oakhart Social’s rock star approach puts it in C’ville’s top-tier

A grilled octopus open-face sandwich is one of Oakhart’s “off-the-beaten path” dishes. Photo: Emily Sacco A grilled octopus open-face sandwich is one of Oakhart’s “off-the-beaten path” dishes. Photo: Emily Sacco

I should have disregarded the sales pitch. I had asked Ben Clore what the new restaurant he was founding with his childhood friend and chef Tristan Wraight would do differently than everyone else. He said Oakhart Social would be “a little more rock ‘n’ roll.”

It was one of those vague expressions that as a journalist I’m supposed to disregard as marketing speak, spin, empty rhetoric.

But for some reason it stuck with me. In the past five to 10 years, chefs have been elevated to the level of rock stars. (Rock stars, by the way, typically disagree with this idea.) Television has put them on display. Festivals invite them out to cook for live audiences. And let’s be honest, cooking competitions are a lot more fun to watch than band battles.

So, could Oakhart Social actually pull it off right here on West Main?

Four months after a relatively quiet opening, it’s looking like it might. Oakhart has received almost universally positive reviews and last month it won an OpenTable.com Diner’s Choice Award for reaching the No. 1 spot on the website’s running list of Top 10 Diners’ Choice Winners. That puts the restaurant in some pretty good company indeed; at press time, it was ahead of the likes of Ivy Inn and Fleurie for the highest rating in OpenTable’s five-star rating system.

Some of Oakhart’s success has actually been due to the relatively quiet opening, Clore and Wraight said. They didn’t have an opening crush, so they were able to take their time dialing in the standards on their menu of small, sharable plates. They’ve also stepped up their drinks game in a few short months, with the help of bar manager Albee Padone’s prohibition-style cocktail list and an impromptu beer engine program that features a rotating selection of one-off cask ales from local breweries.

“It’s neat because we get to have something for sale at our bar that you can’t get anywhere else, which is not always an easy thing to do when you are talking about beer or wine,” Clore said. Wraight put it in food terms: “It’s like talking to local farmers about their products; it’s just nice working with people that are excited about their stuff.”

As for Wraight’s menu, which he executes alongside sous chef Jake Nesmith, the short list is packed with good dishes and sprinkled with great dishes. Vegetarians should run as fast as their little veggie-fueled legs can carry them to Oakhart for the shaved salad of arugula, fennel, baby carrot, endive, medjool date, fuji apple and bread crumbs with creamy garlic dressing. The salad has a smoky, bacon-like meatiness that Wraight and Clore swear is from the dates and breadcrumbs. I don’t know. It might be from bacon.

For meat-eaters there’s more than enough to go around—the pork belly salad (a heaping pile of crispy meat cubes set off by sharp house-pickled cucumber), the grilled octopus open-faced sandwich (with cephalopod that’s been poached slowly in oil before hitting the grill for a tender texture with just a bit of resistance) and several dishes featuring Wraight’s handmade chorizo.

The centerpiece of the Oakhart kitchen is a wood-burning oven that’s perfect for dishes like the restaurant’s new provoletta, what Wraight calls an Argentinian take on an Italian dish of caramelized cheese, chorizo, cippolini, lemon and grilled bread, and of course pizza.

But Wraight said Oakhart “isn’t a pizza place.” Rather, he’s most comfortable in the kitchen when he’s taking things “off the beaten path a little bit,” sneaking different flavors and techniques into classic preparations. It’s something the Oakhart clientele has responded to, he said, and he’s taken down-the-middle dishes like roasted chicken and meatballs off the menu. When spring arrives, bigger changes are coming.

“Technique-wise, I come from sort of a French background,” Wraight said. “But I’ve worked in farm-to-table approaches, small Italian tavernas, hipster chicken shacks, a lot of environments. For me, it is all about big flavor and beautiful presentation.”

The trick is combining that approach to food with a price point that keeps people coming back, and Oakhart’s few negative online reviews have said the food was overpriced for “what it was.” That’s been disappointing for the team, Clore said, because they’ve tried to price things as fairly as possible.

“Everybody prices their food the same way. There is a formula,” he said. “If it seems like it’s expensive, maybe you’re going to places that don’t use as good a product. We try to be conscious about what we’re using.”

Clore and Wraight said the most important thing for now is to keep their eyes on the future. The restaurateurs said they’re most looking forward to opening their 36-seat patio in the spring, which will abut Public Fish & Oyster’s lively outdoor seating. Their long-term goal is to create a rooftop bar with a smaller menu focused on wood-fired pizzas and other snacks.

“So far, so good,” Clore said of Oakhart’s early success. “But we don’t want to get complacent.”

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