I am old enough to remember when cooking was not cool. Before entire networks were devoted to it, cooking was relegated to the nerdy back room of public television. The prototypical chef was the bumbling Muppet Swedish Chef, while rock stars like Animal were the cool Muppets.
Today, chefs are the rock stars. And, cooking has never been cooler. While the effects of this trend have cut both ways, an unquestioned benefit is the birth of a new kind of American restaurant—casual and unfussy like the popular spots of the past, but where it’s okay to be passionate about food.
A premier example is Washington, D.C.’s Rose’s Luxury, once named best new restaurant in the country. Two decades ago, the notion of mobs of young people waiting for hours to eat at a restaurant would have been absurd, but that’s now the norm at Rose’s Luxury. Its former sous chef, Tyler Teass, formerly of Clifton Inn, just moved back to Charlottesville to run the kitchen of the new Brasserie Saison on the Downtown Mall. When he got back, I took him to our own exemplar of the new breed of restaurant, Oakhart Social, to see what he thought. And though there were thankfully no long lines, similarities to Rose’s were many.
Oakhart chef and co-owner Tristan Wraight came to town in 2014 from Chicago, one of the nation’s capitals of the new genre. And, he is a disciple of the new way—“more casual, more affordable and more inclusive.”
Not surprisingly, Teass loved Oakhart Social, which he says shares both design elements and service style with Rose’s Luxury. The sparse, comfortable space with brick walls painted all white was once an auto service station. “Very warm and friendly,” said Teass. Indeed, Rose’s Luxury is known for happy, caring servers who are genuinely passionate about the enterprise and their guests’ experience. Oakhart’s servers get it, too.
As for the food, Wraight cooks whatever he likes without boundary. “I’m interested in tasting different dishes that are unrestrained by coursing, ethnicity or genre,” Wraight says. Instead of appetizers and entrées, the menu simply lists items from smallest to largest, allowing diners to choose whether to construct a traditional meal, or just order a bunch of things to share. We opted for the latter.
First came a gift from the kitchen, fluke crudo, Teass’ favorite dish of the night. Delicate slabs of Mid-Atlantic fluke, lightly brined in a solution of salt and sugar, joined dollops of salsa verde, with added crunch from toasted bread crumbs. “Very well-seasoned and simple,” praised Teass.
Next came Teass’ second-favorite dish of the night, wood-fired oysters. Oakhart Social has one of the only wood-burning ovens in town, and uses it for nearly everything. Here, Big Island pearl oysters from Monday Creek take a quick trip to the oven with bacon fat and citrusy, herby gremolata. When done, they receive a touch of seasoned panko for texture. “I normally don’t love warm oysters,” said Teass, “but those were really tasty.”
Wraight’s wife is vegetarian, and since she is his muse, vegetables are an inspired choice. “Vegetables are infinitely more versatile in flavor, texture and color than meat,” says Wraight. For a playful riff on peas and carrots, Wraight chars local baby carrots twice on the grill, and tops them with fresh pea shoots, sweet and spicy pecans and his own buttermilk ranch dressing. Delicious.
But Wraight loves meat too, and his current favorite dish, chicken liver mousse, came next. Livers of River Oak Farm chickens take an overnight milk bath before a quick sear, and are then blended with capers, sherry, mustard and butter until silky smooth. Served with Virginia apples, pickled shallots and grilled Albemarle Baking Company pain de campagne, the dish would make a great meal in itself.
Fried trout was the night’s best example of boundary-free cooking—not fusion, where a chef forcefully combines two cultures’ cuisines, but rather cooking without classification at all. A brined North Carolina trout is deep fried and served whole with a light pea and ginger purée, herb salad, shaved fennel, pickled chilis and fish-sauce vinaigrette.
“Guests expect so much out of restaurants nowadays,” said Teass after our meal. “And it’s a real challenge to hit the mark between casual and approachable and food that is well sourced, prepared, plated, executed and priced.” A challenge, yes. But Oakhart Social meets it.