OAK, otherwise known as Original American Kitchen opened a little over two months ago in the former Ichiban downtown (15 SE 1st Avenue). After hearing countless stories and requests from readers and friends, I finally had the chance to visit last night. The restaurant is opened by the 101 Group, the same people who opened 101 Cantina and 101 Downtown. Both of which are…shall we say, not my style, so it struck me as curious when they decided to open a southern restaurant. The space was originally intended as 101 Samba, a Brazilian steakhouse concept that was ultimately abandoned.
Well, let’s start with the good. Being the consummate marketers and fellows who are very in-tune with the college-aged crowd, you can tell a great deal of money went into remodeling the dining room. Your standard wood lined walls, rusted accents, Edison bulbs, and mason jars. While certainly nice, this trend of southern restaurants is a bit tired now. There’s a lovely lounge area with leather sofas, and the self-serve beer and whiskey taps are actually pretty cool. If only they weren’t filled with things like Sea Dog Blueberry beer, Crème Brulee beer, and perplexingly enough; Jamison’s Irish Whiskey. American Kitchen. Irish Whiskey. You see the conundrum? To their credit, Swamp Head and First Magnitude as well as the very American Bulleit Whiskey are available as well. I also quite liked the wall of mason jars at the entrance way all holding real Sunflowers, it’s a popular photo op according to Instagram, and the fresh lavender placed at each table.
The service was also not bad considering all of the terrible things I’ve been hearing. There wasn’t a hostess at the stand out front, but it was because she was seating another party. Our waitress, while forgetting little things like taking away our menus, was attentive and very friendly. The manager was also checking in on every table, and was extremely open to feedback. Much respect to that, which is why I’m hoping they will take this constructively.
The food and drinks are terrible.
Let me start with the cocktails. Looking at the menu, the Oak Spiked Sweet Tea ($8 – vodka, tequila, gin, rum, whiskey, mint, sour, honey, sweet tea) is essentially a crazy Long Island, and seemed a bit insane for anyone to order with a meal, the Spicy Melon ($10 – tequila, watermelon juice, lemon/lime juice, jalapenos, agave nectar, and sea salt foam) sounds awful, and the Charleston Fashion ($9 – bourbon, cranberry and orange bitters, maple syrup, liquid smoked glass, candied bacon) sounds like a poor attempt to include every food buzzword possible. My date and I settled on trying the Guns & Roses ($10 – tequila, orange liqueur, lavender infused simple syrup, orange blossom water, lemon/lime juice) which was so incredibly sour, I tasted nothing else and was practically undrinkable. We were so put off, we didn’t want to sample anything else.
Then there are the appetizers, and our sweet waitress recommended the onion rings. I was intent on ordering them until I was told they were stuffed with mac and cheese, and topped with pork brisket (basically shoulder). I’m sorry, what? We settled on the Loaded Potato Wedges ($9 – blackened potato wedges, béchamel sauce, applewood smoked bacon, onion petals, and BBQ sauce). Where do I begin with this dish? The wedges were not blackened, they were out of a bag and deep fried. I also found the mixture of BBQ sauce and béchamel sauce (flour, butter, milk) to be an odd combination, so I asked for the BBQ sauce on the side. I’m glad I did this because A) it would have been a bad combination and B) the BBQ sauce isn’t so much BBQ sauce as it is Chick-Fil-A Polynesian Sauce.
The dinner menu is the same tired story; burgers, sliders, steak, salmon, chicken & waffles, pork chops, salads. For a place that calls themselves “original”, there’s really nothing original about it…but one dish caught my eye.
The Hot Brown is a popular dish in Kentucky, and originated at the Brown Hotel in Louisville some time in the 1920’s. It’s essentially an open-faced sandwich of turkey, bacon, and Mornay sauce over crispy toast. It takes a lot of gall to put this dish on any restaurant’s menu, a dish that has been deeply ingrained in lore, and one whose presence on this menu can only be explained by its recent media attention on Mind of a Chef. Their version is again, perplexing to say the least. Instead of Mornay (béchamel with cheese), it’s covered in only Bechamel. The bread was stale and not crisped. The pork brisket subbed for turkey, and was dry. The bacon was flavorless and tasted like old bacon put under a broiler again. And for some reason, they wanted to pour that BBQ sauce (Chick-Fil-A Polynesian) all over it again. It’s one thing to pay homage to a legend, it’s another to butcher it. It’s like having Britney Spears cover the Beatles.
We also tried the Red Eye Gravy Shrimp & Grits, which for some reason used grounded coffee beans and bloody mary mix instead of meat drippings and black coffee. I question whether the restaurant actually knows what these foods are, or if they were just looking to throw buzzwords out. The grits were more cream and butter than they were grits, and contained entirely way too much black pepper. When the occasional spoonful caught some of the actual grits, they could best be described as…sandy?
It’s a damn shame because on paper, much of the menu actually sounds good. And for a restaurant that features their bar so prominently, the spirits selection was actually rather small, and the bartender didn’t seem to have it together. You’ve got to do better than a simple whiskey and coke on your menu for $9. While the interior of the restaurant is nice and the self-serve taps are fun, it’s not enough to make this a worthwhile visit. There’s a lot to be fixed here, and it’s my hope they do. Because right now, it seems they spend more on fresh flowers and lavender than they do on the food.