I’m beginning to suspect that the increasing prevalence of the “+” sign in the restaurant world (over the ampersand) is less a precious affectation than a sign of something much more clandestine. Since it bears a resemblance to Freemasonry’s Red Cross of Constantine, maybe the chefs and servers at Owen + Alchemy and Charlatan (where it appears many times on the menu) have been meeting in secret, plotting the New World Order or a fake moon landing.
Now it appears that the men and women of Oak + Char are part of the scheme, under the cover of a restaurant with an awkwardly expressed concept somehow involving the application of wood and fire to food—in other words, what the rest of us obscurely refer to as “cooking.”
The chef in charge of this is Joseph Heppe, lately of the faux mega-speakeasy Untitled (where his work seemed lost in that sprawling operation)—and before that stints at Mercat a la Planxa and Vermilion. The latter two restaurants seem to have much more influence on the food at O+C, where Heppe dabbles in Indian and Spanish as well as Korean, Italian, and French here and there. Most of it looks pretty appealing too—on paper, anyway.
Heppe, for better and worse, makes worlds collide, combining elements of disparate cuisines in single dishes. He tosses blistered shishitos with shreds of funky aged country ham concealing a trench of nutty romesco sauce. He breathes fire onto creamy charred burrata with a spicy eggplant muhammara, served with biscuitlike naan that somehow lacks an appropriately chewy breadlike structure. He deep-fries golf-ball-size arancini with molten cores of pecorino bechamel and plates them with bitter braised rapini and sweet, thick red-pepper vinaigrette. He glazes hard-fried Korean-style chicken wings with a mixture of maple, sherry, and the red-pepper paste gochuchang, and beds them atop an eerily green cilantro-lime yogurt sauce. They’re candy sweet, with barely a hint of the gochuchang’s heat, but come pretty close to approximating the style of the steroidal birds at Crisp.
Blistered, spice-crusted lengths of octopus are fired in a tandoori oven and plated with roasted eggplant and a drizzle of nduja-tinged vinaigrette. Mineral-rich beef tartare is dabbed with deposits of aioli emulsified with uni. A glass jar of cold-smoked oysters with pickled lemon and Basque green chiles is all about the process over the product, but the flaky, buttery crackers it comes with are a memorable delivery vehicle. One dish features a duo of compressed lamb sweetbreads and dense, peppery blood sausage, plated with a strip of syrupy red-onion aigre-doux and pureed squash, the red against the yellow meant to conjure up images of chicken nuggets and their lowbrow sauces.
Certain dishes go off the rails farther than others. The breading on deep-fried broccoli heads draped with white anchovy and fueled by fruity Calabrian chiles absorbs oil like a sponge. Nicely charred double cheeseburger patties are nearly outdone by thick, too-sweet slices of house-made pickles. Strozzapreti, aka “priest stranglers,” in a lifeless goat ragu with an oddly alkaline pistachio gremolata are certainly fat, doughy, and undercooked enough to take out a bishop.
Heppe does much better with entrees, which seem to be less subject to the culinary miscegenation found on the rest of menu. Twin planks of seared rare duck breast with a hollandaise-like duck-liver vinaigrette are advertised as “rye aged,” not that any effect from that process is discernible. But the meat is well executed and appropriately paired with the accompanying cooked apples. Likewise, a smoke-saturated half chicken with a molten honjuku egg to the side was perfectly executed (save for some raw flesh near the bone), but might have been better served shredded in a salad (that’s where the leftovers went). Maybe the most successful dish on the menu is one that doesn’t seem to reference any particular cuisine at all. Slices of pork collar, brined in cider and cooked just pink, luxuriate among fermented apples, turnips, and chorizo. It’s a seemingly straightforward plate that puts the spotlight on a great, underused cut of meat, exhibiting a simplicity not seen elsewhere on the menu.
The bar has a strong focus on whiskey, beer, and cocktails, and a surprisingly sparse wine list. The dessert menu matches its brevity with only three options, including curious rolled “cotton cakes” described by a server as “angel food sushi”; sprinkled with basil-tinged streusel, it’s a dessert that absorbs more saliva than it produces. A big surprise at the end of one meal was a frozen “vegan” cocktail incorporating vodka, chocolate liqueur, Averna, coconut milk, and cocoa—a rich yet somehow refreshing digestif that’s more than the sum of its parts.
The setting for all of this is the former Graham Elliot space (Harvest on Huron before that), designed to look like it’s been set ablaze, Katniss Everdeen style. Dark, seemingly scorched woods are lit by large, ruffled white cloth light fixtures that resemble marshmallow fluff and hang over candlelit tables (I unintentionally scorched a hole in my napkin). Overshadowing this is the uncomfortable reality that nearly every seat in the place, from stools to overstuffed banquettes, is a high-top, which makes the dining room appear to be populated by toddlers, their legs swinging in the breeze, blissfully ignorant of the conspiracy afoot.