Normally, when I hear a restaurant's star chef is departing, I begin to wonder how long before the concept is scrapped and a new Thai restaurant opens. Oak replacing Chef McKee should be easier, though, since he spent most nights glad-handing the guests and preening like the cat who killed the canary. After a brief flirtation with Cru Cafe's John Zucker, Oak was able to score Chef Jeremiah Bacon (the single best chef name on the planet) from Carolina's.
So it is with some trepidation that The Girl and I made our way downtown, a light drizzle peppering the broken sidewalks as we pass the Four Points of Law, on our way to the converted 150 year old bank. The first impression of Oak for those of us who have been there before is confusion. Where are the towering oil paintings of Chef McKee and his snake skin boots? Where are the dozens of photos of him standing arms crossed, glaring at you? Chef Bacon has apparently decided that Oak won't be a monument to the cult of his own greatness, and instead is trying a novel approach of actually cooking the food you are served. His approach to food means you will see a focus on local, fresh, sustainable foods.
The restaurant itself is gorgeous, sumptuous, and refined. Please don't be That Guy, the one wearing his BEER T-shirt and flip-flops. You will just look like a complete idiot. Grab a sport coat (if you're over the age of 17 you should own at least two), wait the extra 30 minutes it takes your lady to class it up, and go spend a c-note on dinner.
For a starter we settle on the Pan Seared Sea Scallops ($14). These two massive and perfectly caramelized scallops are served over a sweet onion and cardamom soubise. Fork tender, with just a hint of salt, they melt in your mouth the way a M&M never truly does. The soubise make the accompanying brussels sprouts and maitake mushrooms almost sing in your mouth. There are some dishes that leave you wanting more, and there are some dishes you would walk over the flaming ruins of Detroit to eat. Guess which category these fall into.
For the entree, The Girl went with the Filet ($31). One thing Chef Bacon (I really love saying Chef Bacon) has not changed is the al a carte nature of the steak menu. That $31 steak includes a tiny stuffed tomato and the steak. The sides are family style and portioned for 2-4 people. For a side, we chose the Lobster and Shrimp Mac & Cheese ($15), which is technically an appetizer, but oh well. The Girl's filet is perfectly seared, dead on mid-rare. Light, creamy, and seasoned to a tee. Honestly, next to the lobster mac that steak could have been a Big Mac and I doubt The Girl would have noticed. Made with orzo, the mac was creamy and rich without being overpowering. The cheese had a nutty hint that contrasted brilliantly with the buttery lobster. Without hesitation I can say that this is the best variation of mac & cheese I have ever tasted.
For my entree, I went with the Flat Iron Steak ($24) served with a Burden Creek Dairy goat cheese fondue and truffled pomme frites. I have my reasons for steering away from the filet, and it has nothing to do with Scots being cheap. When I know the steak will be perfectly seasoned and cooked to perfection, I will always choose the steak with the highest fat content. Obviously at Ruby Tuesday a fatty steak means tons of gristle, but at a high end steakhouse fat equals taste. This steak proves that point perfectly. The sear they achieve on the outside seal in the natural jus, which combined with the goat cheese fondue make your tongue never want to go home. The truffled pomme frittes are thin and crisp and salty and all around the perfect side for a steak, or a burger, or mussels, or lasagna, or Oreos, or....well you get the point. Make sure you try them, no matter what you order.
Moving on to dessert, I must admit I wasn't thrilled with our choice. Chocolate cake, at twelve dollars for a slice no less. The look on The Girl's face, and the fact that we always order creme brulee, lead us to a joint decision of cake. Did I say cake? I meant eight layers of light, fluffy, ganache awesomeness. I usually tap out of a chocolate cake around the third bite. This towering chocolate palace, however, forced me to consider undoing my belt. I COULD NOT STOP EATING.
The differences in Oak from the days of Chef McKee to Chef Bacon are subtle but substantial. The attention to detail that was sorely lacking is in evidence in every step of the meal. The kitchen that had for so long cried out for a strong hand to guide her, finally has one. The Girl and I head home, happy in a way that only the absolute best of dinners will make you.
Overall: 22 out of 25, an absolutely perfect meal, start to finish, with a bill that will blow your monthly budget.