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Beautiful canary melon salad with guajillo pepper, cotija cheese, charred pepitas and cilantro

Oak's Back in the Game

by Rachael Abrams | Photography by Jill Broussard | Modern Luxury Dallas magazine | September 25, 2014

Though perfection is rarely attainable, it meanders through every element of Oak since Brian Zenner took the reins as executive chef. The former chef de cuisine left for a notable stint at Belly and Trumpet when chef Jason Maddy departed the kitchen. And now Zenner’s back, proving his discernible ability to turn something good into a spectacular showstopper, as he stands front and center at the revitalized Design District hot spot.

The Oak experience comes to life in the warm, open room, where luxurious tufted leather benches and chairs cozy up to wood tables, and a mirrored bar welcomes cocktail enthusiasts. But what has changed, aside from amped-up portion sizes, are those natural elements dotting the space—they’re symbols of Zenner’s avant-garde perspective. The details represent his passion for sustainability and using local ingredients gathered nearby. Oak floors, airy orb lights, an oversize coral pendant and the projected slow-moving sea plant on the back wall reflect the chef’s haute cuisine.

Zenner’s precision manifests in the refined menu and wine list, robust with varietals from around the world. We are greeted in a timely manner by our sweet waiter, an expert on the menu and a master in service. As recommended, we begin with the canary melon salad. Transcendent in taste and presentation, the exotic melon is the spotlight as evenly cut pieces are centered on the plate. Together with the chunky guajillo chile oil, cilantro, shaved radish, charred pepitas and cotija cheese, this honey-like melon is transformed into a spirited Mexican fiesta. We sweep our last piece of juicy melon over the last drop of guajillo oil to get a final jolt of happiness.

The chef’s worldly persona is marked by a wealth of global flavors that ignite the menu. Appetizers invite diners into Thai culture with mussel and coconut soup; Mediterranean cuisine with the Greek sardine enriched by a farm egg; and rich Italian fare with the tomato risotto, serrano ham and decadent whipped burrata cheese. We opt for the Spanish mackerel, which rests in small pieces on a bed of chopped piquillo peppers and Marcona almonds. The fish is accompanied by a medallion of chopped potatoes and topped with a farm egg. Moist and complex, together, the ingredients make for a supreme bite.
Among the sides is the irresistible gnocchi Parisienne, comprised of little puffs of heaven—light, fluffy and extremely decadent. Served in a medium-size bowl, don’t underestimate these small treats; there are plenty to go around.

For the main course, we select the branzino, which is served flat and whole, sans head. Memorable in taste and plating, the flaky white fish is prepared with crispy, metallic skin. Consuming the aromatic flavors of the confit tomato and picholine olives, this European sea bass is flawless. For meat lovers, the prime beef tenderloin topped with seared foie gras is a wise choice. With evenly cooked meat (brown on all outer sides with a light pink interior) dressed up with a drizzle of beef jus, this dish is superb. On the same plate rests a moist pancake, made up of shredded potatoes and bright green asparagus, topped with a perfectly poached egg. After luxuriating in these entrees, we’re eager to see how Zenner executes the monkfish and Niman Ranch pork chop on our next visit.

To leave without tasting desserts created by Pastry Chef Lucia Merino, who came from Miami to work at Oak, would be an unforgivable mistake. The chocolate tart is sinful, with a layer of salty, soft caramel floating between the dense ganache filling and chocolate shell. Served with a quenelle of housemade banana ice cream and a drizzle of dulce de leche, this tart is better than the mind can imagine. Competing for top honors is the créme fraîche cheesecake. This delicacy is round, smooth and well-balanced by a sweet, moist crust. Paired with the cheesecake is a creamy strawberry sorbet quenelle, and a colorful arrangement of orange supremes and strawberry slices. With clean plates and full bellies, we’re left wanting more.

Dinner service at Oak gratifies the bold appetite and amazes the palate. Though chef Maddy’s absence left diners concerned about the future of Oak, everyone can relax—Zenner has admirably stepped up to the plate and exceeded expectations by hitting a home run.

1628 Oak Lawn Ave.

Lunch: Mon.-Fri., 11AM-2PM
Dinner: Mon.-Sat., 5-10PM

More Water, Please
A waiter visits each table with an elegant tray of lemon, lime, cucumber and orange slices to add a hint of flavor to your water.

Don’t Skimp on Butter
The warm roll comes with homemade fruit-infused butter. Don’t even try to resist; the fig and lemon butter is too heavenly.

Party Time
For large parties, reserve the oversize table in the back, or request a few tables on the front patio.