The tree projected on the back wall of the newest restaurant in Dallas’s Design District is, appropriately, an oak. It’s a digital piece by local artist Robert Myers; the sun shining through the wide windows during lunchtime subdues the golden, earthy colors, but the image – sent to the wall via a projector a few feet away – makes a marked impression at any time of the day. As the artistic centerpiece of Oak, Dallas’s new ‘Contemporary Global’ restaurant, it is a representation of what the restaurant itself is meant to be: innovative, sophisticated, stylish and – perhaps most importantly – approachable.
“What we loved about the opportunity to display that particular piece is that it’s different – it’s unique. It’s not another meaningless piece of art, and a really cool thing about it is that he’s laid a foundation now to be able to play with it across seasons and do some fun stuff with it,” says Richard Ellman, co-owner of Oak. “He’s taking new elements and trying to bring a fresh, interesting take on design.”
What Ellman seems to imply is that piece has found its perfect home.
Oak, which opened its doors in December under the ownership of Ellman, his wife Tiffanee and Tommy DeAlano, is a celebration of global influence, fine – yet accessible – dining, creativity and innovation. From the design, steered by Plan B’s Royce Ring and Alex Urrunaga, to the kitchen manned by former mansion Chef de Cusine and world-kitchen traveler Jason Maddy, it is intended to be a warm and welcoming experience where a diner can experience cuisine unlike any other – and at a cost that ensures he or she will be able to return again soon. Oak is representative of the strides the diners and chefs have made in Dallas as a whole, DeAlano believes, that will enable it to be a successful restaurant not restricted by style or price point, and completely open to innovation and creativity.
“The food movement in Dallas has been tremendous over the last few years. With the chefs that are coming out of Dallas, it’s no longer ‘Hey, let’s bring in a New York chef,’ it’s ‘Wow, what is happening here?’” Observes DeAlano. “And with that perspective, we didn’t want to be another restaurant that popped up with something that’s just popular or trendy.”
Adds Tiffanee, “When we talked about our travels we really enjoyed seeing things differently. There are a tremendous amount of people doing Southern fare, Texas fare and all of that really, really well, so we wanted to build a restaurant that was about doing something different; capturing those elements that we saw in our travels. From service points, to texture points, to design points and food that was food forward.”
But it’s not just the burgeoning culture that make Oak unique – it’s the combined experience of the group, and their desire to incorporate the best of what they’ve seen throughout the world.
“The three of us have really come up with something we are proud of and can celebrate the things we’re very excited about; there’s nothing to compartmentalize us, and that gives us a wide breadth in the food culture world – we don’t have to be a specific genre or an idea,” says Richard.” We have the ability to have an open palette, and that’s why our menu has so many different great regions from Mediterranean to Pacific Northwest, or New York to South Africa and New Zealand. And that’s exciting to us – it’s really energizing.”
One look at Oak’s menu makes DeAlano and the Ellmans’ point even clearer. There is a Cannellini Hummus listed as a starter – directly underneath the Foie Gras Torchon, and Veal Schnitzel can be located on the main course list just one item down from the Pasta Bolognese, which finds company with the Lamb Bacon BLT and Our Burger, which is Oak’s hamburger, topped with Gruyere, tomato, horseradish pickle and applewood-smoked bacon. One of the current customer favorites is the Moroccan Octopus and Pork Jowls, while those who prefer salads can choose a Yellow Fin Tuna Niçoise or a Ligurian Caesar with Mint Pesto, among other selections.
“I tried to draw from a lot of mainstays and directions that I’ve done in the past – I’ve done so many different styles of restaurants already that I was just trying to take a little bit of everything and not fit into one genre,” says Maddy. “I didn’t want it to be Italian or French, or to be known as just a grill. I like to use all the techniques that I have, utilize all the skills that I have and also utilize the skill sets that I have in my sous chef (Brian Zenner). So the original menu came from that, because I hadn’t really discussed a whole lot with everyone. But wow that we’re all together and meshing and starting to move on with the restaurant, we have all the basics done. Now, my creative process is just a lot of talking between me and the sous chef, and understanding our cooks’ abilities and their interests. From there we slowly start percolating ideas and then they come together like that. It’s a big group effort.”
Pastry Chef Sarah Green is likewise making the most of the all-inclusive culture that Oak is trying to promote – a Gianduja Panna Cotta is listed next to the Maple Pecan Bread Pudding, along with an offering of cheesecake or a three-item ice cream tasting.
As for the drinks, Bar Manager Abe Bedell has put together a menu of original cocktails that reflect a pursuit of both innovation and practicality, from The Cooler (Kracken and Treaty Oak Silver rums, coconut, pineapple Dimi Milano and rhubarb bitters) to their signature Mighty Oak (Eagle Rare bourbon, mint, ginger, lemon and soda).
“We wanted to have elegant, clean, creative, and thoughtfully crafted cocktails – nothing too heavy-handed, and nothing that takes ten or fifteen steps to make,” says Richard.
The cocktail philosophy embodies the approach Oak takes as a whole – from the simple, elegant, and local design of Ring and Urrunaga (“We got most of our furniture from our neighbors in the Design Disctrict,” observes Tiffanee) to the creativity and accessibility of the offerings from both the kitchen and the bar, they’ve laid a foundation for an approach that embraces inventiveness and creativity, while offering a reliably comfortable, enjoyable experience. What the Ellmans, DeAlano, Maddy and the rest of Oak are pursuing is a sort of fine – yet optionally casual – dining, without cultural or implied geographic restriction.
“I think the best description of us is, when we met with our designers and our brand team, Plan B, they said ‘Okay, we have to have a brand, a name: what kind of food are you?’ And we were like, ‘That’s the whole point, we’re not a name, we’re not Italian, we’re not French – the best we could do was Contemporary Global,’” says Richard. “We are a bit of everything, and so we saw different things in different places – we pulled out menus from places in Sydney and places in Paris, this place and that place. And we said, ‘We want some of that and some of that,’ and Chef was ecstatic because he comes from a tremendous culinary background and he was like ‘Okay, now the training wheels are off, I get to create that. I love that idea.’”
A discussion with the Oak team makes it clear that every aspect of the restaurant has been deeply considered, and that includes the tree projected on the back wall of the restaurant, which signifies much more than meets the eye. To listen to Richard’s description – It’s different – it’s unique. … he’s laid a foundation now to be able to play with it … He’s taking new elements and trying to bring a fresh, interesting take - speaks volumes about why it’s really there.
And it’s not just because it’s an Oak tree.