Venue Review: The Oakz
Fans of Hi5, the sports pub that flourished for nearly a decade on Glenwood South – or for that matter, either of the short-lived pubs that followed it – will recognize the floor plan at The Oakz, the restaurant that opened in January in that space. But that’s about the only thing they’ll recognize, because the new restaurant’s owners have given the place a complete facelift.
The central four-sided granite bar that once dominated the sprawling dining room has been toned down to a more traditional three-sided affair. The pool room has been transformed into a private event space for up to 125 people.
“We wanted the space to feel less like a bar and more like a restaurant,” says Ira Freedman, a North Carolina native and 14-year veteran of the restaurant business who sold his interest in Travinia to open The Oakz with his daughter, Jaclyn Starritt. Freedman manages the restaurant, and Starritt – mother of three with a private psychology practice in Cary – helps out on weekends. The restaurant’s unusual name is a fortuitous mashup of Raleigh’s nickname (the City of Oaks) and the first initials of Freedman’s four grandchildren (Oakleigh, Annie, Karli, and Zack).
Even after the extensive remodeling, the dining room is still a casual space befitting a restaurant that Freedman describes as “American tavern style.” Sturdy wood tables and chairs set the tone in a simply furnished space whose walls are hung with framed photographic enlargements of iconic American scenes.
Those scenes – the Seattle skyline, Wrigley Field, Route 66, Mount Rushmore – set the stage for chef Jabari Wadlington’s menu. A Johnson and Wales graduate who has worked in restaurants from New Orleans to Virginia, Wadlington takes his inspiration from regional American fare.
And then he runs with it. Sometimes it’s just a short jog for fairly traditional renditions of crab cakes, shrimp and grits, or a Reuben with house-made sauerkraut (one of several sandwiches that have proved so popular at lunch that they were recently added to the dinner menu). Or mac-and-cheese, a gooey gratin of gouda, gruyere, extra sharp cheddar and cavatappi topped with pancetta and a panko crust. Bone-in pork chops are braised before getting a final sear on the grill, making for meat that’s juicier than it looks in a presentation that’s marred only by a few lumps in the accompanying apple, bacon and goat cheese risotto. On the other hand, a fine rendering of free-range chicken cooked under a brick is made even more special by its plate companions: silky roasted garlic mashed potatoes and a seasonal medley of expertly cooked vegetables, recently starring local pattypan squash.
Sometimes the chef’s creative urges lead him further afield, for the likes of pan-roasted shisito peppers, whose blistered skins and moderate heat he complements with a shower of sea salt and a kewpie mayo dip. Or duck and waffles, Wadlington’s refreshing twist on a trendy soul food classic pairing crisp confit wings and a blue corn waffle drizzled with a “syrup” of cider-bacon gastrique.
Occasionally, the chef sneaks across the border for, say, a bacon gravy and cheese curd-smothered riff on Canadian poutine. Or, heading in the opposite direction, crispy pork belly tacos topped with pickled vegetables and chipotle aioli. And if the chef decides to cross the Atlantic, you won’t likely hear any quibbles about geography when he brings back a steak frites pairing of New York strip and truffle-scented potato “hay” with shrimp butter.
For all the temptations of the regular menu, choosing gets even more difficult when you get to the last page, where a supplemental list showcases a different American regional cuisine each month. In the early months following the restaurant’s opening, Wadlington kicked off the marathon run with a swing across Southern states, from the Gulf Coast to Texas to the Southwest.
In June, the chef took us to the Pacific Northwest for sublime fried razor clams and a spot-on rendition of cioppino. This month, he hops across the country to New England for clam chowder, oysters Casino and a Vermonter sandwich: applewood-smoked ham, Vermont maple-apple butter and cheddar on cinnamon-maple-raisin bread. You can get your lobster fix in a variety of ways, from bisque to tail to lobster roll.
And for dessert? Boston cream pie, of course.