THE THRILLIST AWARDS: CHICAGO'S BEST NEW FOOD & DRINK OF 2015
Don’t let its eyebrow-raising name fool you, Oak + Char’s highly addictive "MSG Wings" actually take their name from the major ingredients in their lip-smacking glaze (maple, sherry, and gochujang chili). A smoked-cilantro yogurt sauce served beneath the wings imparts a cooling effect that tempers the sweet heat of the wings, and proves that sometimes, the key to superior wings is synergy.
Oak + Char name Squashfest 2015 Champs by Chicago Reader.
What a great event! Thank you Chicago Reader for an amazing SQUASHFEST! Congrats to the winning teams:, Oak + Char, State and Lake Chicago Tavern and Urban Till, Corp.!
Wood-Fired Cooking Makes a Comeback in Chicago
Pull up anywhere within, say, 100 feet of the new Loews Chicago Hotel, where Jose Garces’s Rural Society (455 N. Park Dr., 312-840-6605) is situated, and the aroma grabs you. Mouthwateringly familiar, it’s the smell of wood smoke, meat, and those gorgeous fat drippings that merge the two on your plate. “Amazing, right?” says chef de cuisine Cory Morris, grinning. “There’s a lot of chef envy going on about what we have here.” Pointing to the floor-to-ceiling stacks of hickory and white oak and then to the oven and the three parilla grills that the woods fuel, Morris explains that he has worked with Garces for seven years, “but this is the first time the line is completely fired by wood.”
Smoking hot and fantastically flavorful, wood-fired cooking is moving into more Chicago restaurant kitchens and trending in recent openings like Oak + Char (217 W. Huron St., 312-643-2427) andMaple & Ash (8 W. Maple St., 312-944-8888).
“The same reasons the industry got away from wood-fire cooking—it’s messy, it’s primitive, it’s demanding—are the very reasons we’re excited to get back to it,” says chef John Manion, standing in the soon-to-open El Che Bar (845 W. Washington Blvd.), his wood-fired Midwest-meets-South America restaurant. “It’s so naked and such a pure way of cooking, the results need no adornment.”
Cooking purely with wood, “there’s a lot to learn,” says Morris. “And there are more wood-cooking methods, like asador (hanging the meat near the fire for long stretches to slowly cook and smoke), that we have yet to add.”
For fall fixes of wood-grilled flavor, look for dishes like Oak + Char’s applewood-grilled, bone-in rib-eye with charred scallion salsa verde and peanut romesco; El Che Bar’s dry-rubbed rib-eye with chimichurri, charred artichokes, and charred chile aioli; and Rural Society’s starter of burrata with fire-charred cherry tomatoes, prosciutto, aged balsamic, petite arugula, and grilled sardo crackers.
CHICAGO'S BEST BURGERS: THE DEFINITIVE GUIDE
It’s no secret that the MSG Wings at this Downtown hotspot are finger-lickin’ fantastic, but its prime beef burger is actually one of River North’s best-kept secrets. The secret to this secret? Delightfully greasy beef fat onion rings, bourbon pickles, and plenty of C&D sauce (a nod to the “cease and desist” letter the restaurant received from the folks at Kraft Foods for originally labeling it “house-made A1 sauce”).
Oak + Char
A wide variety of ethnic influences can be found on the modern Midwestern menu at Oak + Char. Dine in a comfortable atmosphere with exceptional service and seasonally fresh dishes.
A Q & A with the Guys at Oak + Char
I hope you are enjoying the new season! This episode has us all over the map. FromAngry Crab in West Rogers Park to Preservation Bread & Wine in Geneva to Oak + Char in River North.
This week I chatted with Executive Chef David Wang and Tyler Mendoza, managing partner at Oak + Char, who jokingly said his title could also be fifth string bartender and third string bus boy! The beverage program is an important part of Oak + Char’s concept so we chatted about that as well as the design, which our Check, Please!guests discussed as well! Here’s what Tyler had to say:
Q: You have an impressive whiskey collection at Oak + Char. Can you talk about some of the standouts on offer and give some must-try suggestions?
Tyler Mendoza: We wanted to really focus on whiskey at Oak + Char, having fallen in love with it over the last few years. Right now the list is at about 125 American whiskeys and I’m at the point where I will need more shelves to hold it all! We focused on three things when it comes to whiskey selections. A whiskey has to have a story, it has to taste good, and it has to be originally distilled by the label.
Tyler Mendoza, managing partner at Oak + Char
Q: What are your three favorite whiskeys?
Tyler Mendoza: I’d say my three favorites are…
Our private barrel of Four Roses Single Barrel: It is honestly one of the best bourbons I’ve ever had. It is 120.4 proof; 11 years, six months old; and the OBSF mash bill. It has great spice and fruit notes and is incredibly balanced. It doesn’t burn like 120 proof but still had a good kick to it. It pairs extremely well with our food, and I always suggest it neat. It’s one of four really solid private barrels we have.
We have a fairly large reserve list and my favorite from that list is Willett Family Estate Rye. We have the two, six, and eight year-olds, and it’s a great example of how whiskey changes over time. The two-year is super spice forward, but not unbalanced. It doesn’t have too much vanilla and oak to it yet, but when you move to the eight-year, it does. The spice notes mellow out but still give a good hit in the backend and it has a really good sweet note from age.
And we just got a new one in called Wyoming Whiskey. It’s brand new and the cool thing about it is that the family owns the grain, water, land, and still so you could call it single estate if that term existed for whiskey. It makes a great Old Fashioned.
Q: Oak + Char has an extensive beer menu. What are some tips for pairing beer with food?
Tyler Mendoza: If we were forced to drink two things for the rest of our lives, it would be whiskey and beer. It is often overlooked how well beer pairs with food. The fruit and acidity in a farmhouse, for example, can provide the same type of pairing that a Riesling can. We look for beer that will pair really well with food, and I’d say probably 85% is meant to be paired (the other 15% is just really good). The beers I’ve had that pair really well are:
Lighter crisper beer (pilsner for example) pairs really well with seafood and any cuisine that has spice as a backbone (Mexican and Asian for example). The crisp acid will help cut the extreme of the spice notes and balance really well. It’s the same logic for fish and white wine: acid, crisp, and lightly fruity notes help cut through the fat and salinity of fish.
Hoppy beer (IPAs) pairs really well with roasted, grilled, fattier proteins (think duck, game), and heavier starches. The malt elements complement really well with the roasty flavor while the fat helps mask the really bitter notes in the beer.
Porters and stouts pair really well with smoked, roasted, and barbequed heavier dishes as they will complement the umami flavor in meats, cut through the fat, and provide a sweeter note that helps balance out the roasted flavor.
Honestly I treat beer just like I treat wine. Lighter beer (pilsner, amber, hefewiezen, saison/farmhouse) follows similar rules to white wines. Heavier beer (porters, black ales, stouts) is like red wine. And anything that is really hoppy/malty pairs with fatty foods.
Q: The menu has many global influences. What inspires you and what are some new dishes you are excited about?
Executive Chef David Wang: A lot of my passion and inspiration comes from my travels around the world – the flavors that I’ve tasted and the experiences I’ve had. It also helps that my Chinese background allows me to dig into the flavor library of Asian cuisine. In addition, having worked under Jose Garces, I’ve learned a lot of Spanish techniques as well as ingredients. The dishes I’m most excited about are the duck kielbasa meatballs with Duck heart gravy and the Fennel and Brussel salad tossed in ajiwan oil. There are a lot of complex flavors in this dish of simple meatballs and gravy. The pork tails with bacon sambal is another dish that is exciting for me. It’s fatty, unctuous, smoky, crunchy, and spicy, and great with beer.
Executive Chef David Wang
Q: The decor at Oak + Char is inspired by the great Chicago Fire. Can you talk about it a bit?
Tyler Mendoza: The design was inspired by the Chicago Fire and with the idea of rebirth. This was the first solo restaurant project for me and my dad, and we liked the idea of the rebuilding of the city. We knew that we took over a very well-known restaurant (Graham Elliot’s restaurant). The building itself is over 100 years old, and we wanted to highlight the brick and timber as much as we could. The charred wood along the walls is meant to tie into the burnt buildings immediately after the fire, while the live edge white oak tables (all from one tree) are meant to be the start of the rebirth, which is the food and drink.
Q: Let’s talk about the much remarked upon lighting fixtures…
Tyler Mendoza: The lights are the most talked about feature of the venue and they serve many different purposes. We wanted to soften the space, and lower the ceiling line, and to provide contrast to the harder materials (wood, steel, concrete) we used throughout the rest of the space. They are also functional as they are sound deadening and diffuse the light in such a way that you will not see the light bulbs unless you look straight up. They also serve as an in-house Rorschach test. Everyone thinks they look like something different!
Four Happy Hour Deals Actually Worth Getting in Chicago
Oak + Char
217 W. Huron St., River North
Enjoy the same Prime Double Cheeseburger on the restaurant’s dinner menu for half the price—just $8. Pair it with a $2 High Life draft, $4 craft draft, or $6 house cocktail any day of the week.
AVAILABLE: 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. daily
Oak + Char review: Bold flavors keep it hot in all the right ways
Homey meets hip at Oak + Char, a River North spot that boasts a laid-back, neighborhood feel and a deftly executed menu that's approachable without being predictable.
The managing partners are father and son Art and Tyler Mendoza. They opened Oak + Char on the last day of October without the benefit of a liquor license, and operated as a no-corkage BYO until the license arrived in December — at which point the Mendozas continued permitting BYO for the rest of the year. That's a good way to make friends.
The unintended focal point, the decor element everybody talks about, is the gathered, poufy fabric surrounding the ceiling light fixtures. One of my dining buddies likened it to a bassinet liner; it reminded me of the undercarriage on a can-can dancer's skirt. Apparently it's intended to evoke clouds, contrasting all those hard surfaces. Everybody's got a theory.
With its woodsy look and Midwestern sensibility, Oak + Char could be a Wisconsin supper club, were it not for its River North location and the fact that executive chef Joseph Heppe (coincidentally, a Wisconsin native) is too good a cook, one with a fondness for powerful flavors and a knack for adding interest to the mundane.
His menu includes a handful of snacks, a good many appetizers, perhaps a half-dozen entrees and a trio of massively portioned "boards" that two or three can share. The latter category includes a roasted whole lobe of foie gras (I'm not sure even I could commit to that much), a pair of fish (one grilled, one fried) and a 32-ounce Painted Hills Farms rib-eye that, although priced at $100, is a superb steak.
You'll eat very well for considerably less, however. His snacks include a twist on crab Rangoon consisting of crispy wontons filled with bacalao (dried salt cod) and goat cheese, accented with Aleppo chili and honey drizzle. The ubiquitous chicken-wings bar snack, dubbed MSG wings, are named for the maple, sherry and gochujang-pepper glaze that contributes the expected sticky-spicy component in a refreshing way; underneath, a cilantro yogurt serves as a delicious stand-in for the usual blue-cheese dip.
Among the appetizers, beef tartare has an assertive edge other versions lack, courtesy of an uni aioli and smoked pine nuts. Octopus emerges from a tandoor oven with a nice exterior char and peppery notes from 'nduja vinaigrette (that last ingredient a spicy Italian sausage). Beef-heart tartine is like Bruschetta Gone Wild, sturdy grilled pumpernickel slices smothered with chopped meat, white anchovies and a surfeit of greens.
Pastas are a strength; I mourn the passing of the goat strozzapreti with minted ricotta, now off the menu, but in its place is a fine ravioli doppio, twin pasta pockets (doppio means double) filled with hay-infused ricotta and shiitake mushrooms, respectively, over sweet-pea puree. There's also a decidedly nontraditional carbonara of saffron pappardelle, lamb-neck sausage, tail peppers and minted bean relish, topped with generous handfuls of shaved pecorino — a fine dish in search of a more descriptive name.
Entrees include a richly flavored smoked chicken, its skin dark and brittle, and wood-grilled pork collar, presented in thick, glistening slices with farro and smoked clams. There's also an outstanding double cheeseburger with beef-fat onion rings; that burger, along with an ever-changing "chef's daily double" burger, are mainstays (along with a good Cuban sandwich) of the lunch menu, a good, unrushed time to hit this place. Another good time is Sunday, when the dinner menu is augmented by the Sunday Supper, a themed, three-course, $28 option (upcoming themes are posted on the restaurant website).
Considering that there's no pastry chef on board ("a communal effort" is what Heppe terms the dessert program), desserts are pretty good. The chocolate-caramel pie with salted sesame crumble, blueberry preserves, apricot puree and rum-Chantilly cream isn't the most coherent dessert I've enjoyed, but I did enjoy it. The simpler pot de creme with pistachio cookies is a keeper, as are the doughnuts with foie-gras-incorporated maple syrup.
There are good wine choices to be had, but the beer program is stronger, and the cocktails, with more than a dozen signature, whimsically named drinks, stronger still.
Service, still in the getting-to-know-you stage when I first visited, has matured nicely. In fact, the whole operation has. And with the ambitious and talented Heppe, this restaurant may have a long future.
Oak + Char
217 W. Huron St.
Tribune rating: Two stars
Open: Dinner Monday-Sunday, lunch Monday-Friday, brunch Saturday-Sunday
Prices: Entrees $16-$24
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Other: Valet parking
How Chicago Bar Experts Are Taking Sangria to the Next Level
Meanwhile, Oak + Char’s Tyler Mendoza decided to change the way the drink is presented. By freezing it, he turned an already summer-friendly sipper into the ultimate patio refreshment. In order to achieve a slushielike consistency that retains the delicate ting of alcohol and sweet body, Mendoza replaced brandy with white rum. He also shunned the one-wine-only rule by combining both red and white wine in the base. It is sweetened with a locally made pineapple cordial, orange juice, oranges, lemon and cinnamon sticks before it takes a spin in the slushie machine. The final product is called Marcy (it's named both for Mendoza's mom and a regular at the restaurant), and can be ordered the pitcher or glass.
10 new and coming-soon weekend brunch options
Oak & Char
217 W. Huron St. 312-643-2427
Launched: April 4
Dishes: The River North restaurant's top brunch seller is its O&C benedict, which features ham, fried oysters and collard greens stewed for 12 hours in ham stock served atop a housemade rye muffin with buttermilk hollandaise ($14). For something sweet, try the wheat-oat scones with apricot marmalade butter ($5) or tonka bean doughnuts with rhubarb jam ($6).
Drinks: The housemade bloody mary mix features smoked tomato puree, caper brine, bay leaf and horseradish mixed with your choice of gin, whiskey or vodka ($10). The frozen red sangria, which has the consistency of a slushy, has also been popular by the glass ($12) or pitcher ($45).
Brunch times: 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Reservations accepted inside. Patio is first come, first served.
Best New Burgers in Chicago 2015
“Modern Midwestern” cuisine from the team behind Untitled focuses on wood-burning dishes so it’s no surprise there’s a hearty burger on the menu. The Double Prime Cheeseburger is a mouth-watering creation served with a house sauce, bourbon pickles and beef fat onion rings.
If the dinner menu at Oak + Char is any indication, what with its novel take on contemporary American cuisine, then the weekend brunch program set to take shape beginning April 19 looks to be a real game-changer in downtown Chicago. A quick glance at the River North restaurant's impending brunch menu confirms those hopes and cravings. The menu features pastries like wheat and oat scones with apricot marmalade butter, tonka bean sugar doughnuts with rhubarb jam, and rye crumpets with blueberry preserves and house butter. For composed plates, the savory-focused entree list contains standouts like the O+C Benedict with ham, fried oyster, pot licker greens, and buttermilk hollandaise; egg in a basket with creamed wild nettles, lamb neck Merguez, and peanut romesco; a smoked trout belly bagel with caper-raisin jam; and a prime double cheeseburger with beef fat onion rings and bourbon pickles. Sweet tooths aren't left in the dust, though, what with 10-grain pancakes with smoked walnut butter and Publican Quality Meats oat brioche French toast with raspberry, lemon curd, and whipped maple butter. Oak + Char starts brunch April 19 and henceforth offers it Saturdays and Sundays from 10:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m.
10 Best New Venues for Spring Meetings and Events.
Oak & Char opened in River North in October. With a rustic interior featuring linen lamps and overhead fixtures inspired by clouds, the venue holds 50 people for semiprivate dinners; the bar holds 75 for cocktail receptions. There’s also a 24-seat private dining room that has a 110-inch video wall suited for presentations and videos. On the menu is Midwestern fare such as cider-brined pork collar and roasted acorn squash.
Her Tasty Life: Oak + Char
Oak + Char. I think you mean Oak + Charming?
I wasn’t really sure what to expect visiting this new “Modern Midwestern” spot in the old Graham Elliot space. I had spent many-a-meal in GE’s dining room and when I heard the folks finally filling its space was a team from MBL Hospitality, I had to look them up. With roots at Untitled, and an executive chef carried over from its kitchen, they certainly aren’t neophytes, but still burgeoning? Perhaps.
2015's Best Places to Dine in Chicago
Oak + Char
Chef Joseph Heppe whips up hearty plates like fjord trout with braised radishes, almond aillade, and potato sauce. 217 W. Huron St., 312-643-2427
Read more at http://michiganavemag.com/dining/articles/2015s-best-places-to-dine#QsxZOdyGAx7xDEhD.99
Boning Up. Go big with meat meant for sharing.
The modern Midwestern cuisine at this new River North spot (in the former Graham Elliot space) has caught the attention of plent o savvy Chicago diners. For us, the standout dish is a huge 32-once bone-in rib-eye. "We wanted to have a steak available, but sometihng you could share,'" says Chef Joe Heppe. "This is real chef food." The hunk comes on a huge board complete with marrow bones and sauce Periguex rich with truffle funkiness. 217 W. Huron St., 312.643.2427, oakandchar.com
The Cuban at Oak + Char Ranks as One of the Best In Town
Like so many great sandwiches, a textbook Cuban aims to accomplish two very contradictory things at the same time. Loaded with roast pork, ham, and Swiss cheese, a Cuban must feel meaty and substantial—but it also needs to stay fairly thin. Pile on too much roast pork and ham, or use bread that’s too thick, and no amount of mustard or pickles can save it from dryness. Skimp on the fillings, and you’re left with what looks like a sad-looking panini. (If you couldn’t tell, the Cuban and I have a fraught relationship.)
Happily, the recently opened Oak + Char (217 W. Huron St., 312-643-2427, oakandchar.com
) in River North joins the club, even if the kitchen takes a few liberties with the formula. While “prosciutto cotto” is simply Italian for boiled ham, the kitchen serves a tender and fatty braised pork collar instead of regular roast pork (a definite plus). While you’ll never get tipsy off the house bourbon pickles, they are crunchy and acidic, making for a nice pairing with the mustard. But the bread really makes this sandwich. Both crisp and very thin, it allows you to appreciate the feast, while containing the chaos.
Where Magazine, The Dining guide
In the capital of steak, sausage and Italian beef, we like our bones with marrow, our ribeyes bone-in. That
doesn’t make us one-note diners, though. The Oak + Char menu takes a modern Midwestern approach.
It could mean a cider-brined pork collar with turnips, chorizo and fermented apples, or a tandoori octopus
with charred eggplant to pair with Dolly, a beverage of Rittenhouse Rye, Campari, maple, lemon, egg white,
cucumber and salt—inspired by Ms. Parton. The dining room makes sweeping, tasteful statements with its
billowy lamps, shades of brown, and ivory and oak tables packed in close. You know Midwesterners. We’re
chatty. 217 Huron St., 312.643.2427, www.oakandchar.com
Oak + Char chef Joseph Heppe isn't a prodigy—he's a pro
Food media loves stories of prodigies who always knew what they were meant to do—young Rick Bayless grinding masa for his PB&J tortillas, young Grant Achatz spherifying his Froot Loops. But few of us are really like that—we start out pretty clueless, we learn something here or there, we get to be pretty good at it, and we put our experiences and influences together to make something of our own. It's not genius—it's professionalism. The guy or gal who knows how to do what he or she does and gets it done at a high level without a lot of fuss is the guy or gal who keeps the world moving.
Joseph Heppe, the chef of River North's high-end comfort food spot Oak + Char, which opened at the tail end of last year and was pretty much instantly popular, is that kind of pro. He rose steadily through kitchens in Chicago and nearby, but never managed to get what are usually perceived as the top-rank names onto his resume. But he picked up skills and mentors and honed his own cuisine at all of his stops, and when he finally got a star position at a place he could make his own, he knew what to do with it—food that reflects international influences and modern techniques in a comfortable way. A neighborhood restaurant that has the requisite burger and chicken wings, but also makes beautifully hand-crafted pasta and isn't afraid of odd farm-to-table meat cuts, what sometimes gets called "modern midwestern." I spoke with him recently about his path to Oak + Char:
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There's plenty of hear at Oak + Char, the former Untitled guys' new restaurant with wood buring cuisine and chic wood-themed remodeling of Graham Elliot's Former stomping grounds.
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In the space that used to be home to Graham Elliot, Oak + Char consists of a trendy interior and new American food and drink menu. The spot takes on a personal approach to bartending, as each beverage is named after someone who inspired or helped the Oak + Char team.
OAK + CHAR – MODERN MIDWESTERN IN RIVER NORTH
Oak + Char is one of my favorite new restaurants. Located within the former Graham Elliot space in the River North Neighborhood of Chicago, Oak + Char focuses on “Modern Midwestern” cuisine using natural cooking techniques in a rustic setting. The menu is comprised of items cooked by direct fire or in clay pots or tandoor ovens, and the dining room is decorated with repurposed wood, riveted steel, and stockyard leather.
The menu at Oak + Char is designed for sharing, and is divided up into Snacks, Small, and Large plates, in addition to two Chef’s Boards and Desserts. A well curated wine, beer, and cocktail list is available, as well. I thoroughly enjoyed the Domaine Chandon Pinot Meunier.
I recently dined with two friends, and we were able to sample an array of menu items, all of which were delicious and wonderfully executed.
We began with the incredibly tasty pecorino arancini, with braised rapini and red pepper vinaigrette. The arancini, which are fried risotto balls, were perfectly crunchy on the outside, and warm and creamy on the inside. The red pepper vinaigrette lent the necessary acidity. These balls of goodness were some of the best bites of the evening.
Equally impressive was the charred burrata, served in a jar atop an addictive eggplant muhammara, along with warm naan fresh from the tandoor oven, imparting incredible flavor not otherwise seen in typical pita bread. I literally wiped the jar clean.
The third course consisted of arguably the tastiest and most tender octopus found in Chicago. Thanks again to that tandoor oven, the octopus was incredibly flavorful on its own, and was enhanced by the charred eggplant and nduja vinaigrette. I cannot wait to get back to Oak + Char, if only for this dish.
Vegetarians would go crazy for the roasted acorn squash, with date saba, red quinoa, and a creamy and mild caña de cabra cheese. I really enjoyed this salad and could easily enjoy this as a healthy lunch entree.
One of Oak + Char’s most popular items is the ravioli doppio, or double pocket ravioli, and I can see why. One side of the ravioli was filled with celery root, and the other with maitake mushrooms. They were then topped with more mushrooms, hazelnuts, and a truffle fondue. I mean, what is not to love about pasta, mushrooms, and a truffle fondue?!? This dish was glorious and we literally had to split the last small bite three ways to avoid any fights from breaking out.
We ended our fantastic meal with what sounded like an unconventional dessert – cotton cake, with persimmon jam and a basil streusel. Wow. Not only was this dessert beautifully presented, but the flavors were deep and remarkable. More earthy than sweet, the cake was extremely light, almost like a pound or angel food cake, and the persimmon jam balanced nicely against the basil streusel. It was the perfect way to end a fantastic meal.
While the food at Oak + Char was on point and we loved each and every dish, service was a bit overbearing, with bus boys constantly asking if we were done with our plates, even though we were mid-bite, and interrupting our conversations to ask if we needed more water rather than just refilling our glasses. While attentiveness is appreciated, we felt rushed and stressed at times throughout the meal while we wanted to savor each bite.
Overall, however, Oak + Char is an excellent dinner venue, and I am eager to return. Oak + Char is open for dinner seven days a week, and lunch Monday through Friday. Reservations are accepted.
Oak + Char
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CHEF JOSEPH HEPPE THINKS BIG AT THE MEAT-CENTRIC OAK + CHAR
Oak + Char is deeply rooted in wood. Its tables are hand-hewn from a Winnetka oak tree felled in a storm; the walls are made of charred Douglas Fir; and whether it’s smoked, char-grilled or wood-roasted, each dish on the menu is kissed by the flame. “We’re not a steakhouse, but we want to have a relationship to that technique of fire-cooking,” explains chef Joseph Heppe.
The kitchen, formerly owned by celebrity chef Graham Elliot, had been recently renovated, but Heppe added some of his own touches: Inspired by his time at Vermillion, he brought in a tandoor — an Indian oven — as well as different smokers that use woods from pear to apple to maple. “We want to incorporate the fire into the cuisine in as many ways as we can,” he says.
Here’s what else to expect at Oak + Char:
Chef stats: Heppe has been cooking professionally since he was 16, starting in fast food and, after college, moving upscale. His Chicago career started at Vermillion; he then moved to Mercat a La Planxa before ending up at Untitled, where he was most recently executive chef.
Must-try dishes: “I’m excited about what I’m seeing all over the country — chefs doing big plates of real chef food,” enthuses Heppe. At Oak + Char, that means a huge 32-ounce ribeye for two, served with bone marrow and sauce Perigeux or a whole roasted foie gras (both market price). “I’ve eaten foie gras since I was sneaking it off my station when a chef wasn’t looking,” laughs Heppe. “So it’s great to offer a pound and a half of perfectly whole roasted foie; it’s one of those special-occasion dishes that you just can’t do at home.”
Seafood stars: It’s not all about the red meat at Oak + Char. Inspired by a recent binge on Spanish canned seafood and Ritz crackers at a party, Heppe buys plump 1871 oysters from Fortune Fish and lightly smokes them. He hits them with Pimentón oil and pickled lemon, then serves them with homemade butter crackers ($13). He also roasts octopus in the tandoor oven, then accompanies it with an nduja vinaigrette and a side of charred eggplant ($12).
Cold-weather cocktails: Mixer Mae Governale has come up with a great cocktail program, but the highlight (at this time of the year, at least) is a selection of hot toddys for two. Served in the restaurant’s collection of eclectic old teapots, the toddys are made with rum or bourbon ($20). If you can stand the cold, out of the frozen drink machine comes Margot ($14), a mix of vodka, coconut milk, chocolate and coffee liquor that Heppe describes as “just like a grown-up Wendy’s chocolate Frostee.”
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At new fire-themed hotspot Oak + Char, choose between two colossal, market-priced chefs boards. For a major beef fix, opt for the 32 oz. bone-in ribeye, which is accompanied by a pair of roasted marrowbones and sauce Périgueux. 217 W. Huron, 312-643-2427
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When it’s bone-chilling cold outside, you’ll be tempted to hunker down inside with a significant other. But why hibernate when you can gather around a fireplace or embrace the natural warmth of a great spot? This is Audarshia Townsend, also known as the 312 Dining Diva.
Looking for something new and exciting yet not too overexposed? River North newcomer Oak + Char offers a contemporary wood cabin vibe, with hearty wild game dishes and bold cocktails to match. Oak + Char is located at 217 W. Huron St.
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The "What's with the lamps?" award: Oak & Char. We could do without the dozens of lighting fixtures draped with bloomers, but nearly every other aspect of this River North restaurant from the guys behind Untitled impressed.
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From the ashes of the acclaimed-yet-shuttered Graham Elliot restaurant comes neighborhood-friendly Oak + Char, which made its debut Oct. 30 but didn't secure its liquor license until mid-November. It's good to have that document, because the beverage program is a big part of the allure. There's a long list of beers, including about a dozen large-format bottles, a dozen or so wines by the glass or bottle, all very affordable, and a list of cocktails, some batched, bearing names such as Dolly, Maury, Heidi or Jordo. Each cocktail is named after someone who inspired the team in one way or another (my thanks to James, who inspired the Wisconsin-style brandy Old Fashioned).
The menu is by Joseph Heppe, the executive chef who put Untitled on the map, and he carries over his fondness for remaking familiar dishes with offbeat ingredients. Opening snacks include a quartet of crisp spring rolls stuffed with pork trotter, on a long plate dabbed with lime tahini, and crunchy arancini that ooze melted pecorino cheese when pierced.
Among small plates, lamb sweetbreads are paired with coins of morcilla sausage, their considerable combined earthiness muted by Tropea onions and pickled mustard seed. Strozzapreti pasta is a fine comfort-food course, mixed with plenty of braised goat meat and topped with chunks of cool, minted ricotta; pistachio gremolata provides a bit of crunch.
Cider-brined pork collar abounds with slices of rich, glistening meat, augmented with fermented apples, chorizo and turnips for a fine cold-weather cure. Aged duck breast, fat cap intact, is encircled by a ribbon of Concord grape mosto (a condiment made by slowly simmering grape must).
If you're really splurging, go for the 32-ounce, market price ($99 the day I inquired) bone-in rib-eye with bone marrow and truffle sauce; if you're economizing, try the $16 double cheeseburger. I didn't sample the burger, but the manager chatting me up praised it to the skies, and managers usually don't push the menu's cheapest main course.
As the name suggests, the decor is all brick and oak, and, yes, some of it is artfully charred. Comfortable chairs pull up to thick oak tables. Overhead lights are diffused with draped fabric, the effect resembling a series of ceiling-hung petticoats; I felt a bit perverse glancing upward.
One of the menu options is Kitchen Coffee: For $10, the customer can buy a six-pack of beer for the kitchen crew (you know, the workers who don't get tips). I sportingly ordered one, and a server stopped by with the six-pack, offering to let me personally hand out the beer. I declined, but I imagine that would be a fun thing to do.
Oak + Char won't ever match Graham Elliot's two Michelin stars. But it might hang around longer.
Fire in the Belly What to get at the flame-inspired Oak + Char
Oak + Char, in the former Graham Elliot space in River North, is a dimly lit, wood-trimmed temple of all things fiery and flavorful. Between the suspended light fixtures wrapped in billowy fabric that emulate plumes of smoke, weathered oak stools and charred wood paneling, it's clear that virtually every design detail nods to the restaurant's namesake motif.
At a mere $7 a plate, bar snacks like the dare-you-not-to-lick-your-fingers-good MSG wings (maple, sherry and gochujang chile) are an obvious—and satisfying—place to begin. Pair them with the Alicia cocktail ($12), a bright, citrusy number with Sloe gin, grapefruit, lemon, simple syrup, Angostura bitters and soda that cuts through their thick, sticky-sweet glaze.
The beef tartare ($13), another shareable starter, toes the line between playful and sophisticated. Uni aioli, smoked pine nuts, pickled pears and dehydrated red onions offer color, texture and an incredible depth of flavor.
Entrées range from cider-brined pork collar ($24) served with fermented apples to a surprisingly great double cheeseburger ($16) loaded with verjus-infused onions and cooked perfectly medium rare. The smoked chicken ($25/half, $35/whole), on the other hand, is pleasantly juicy but feels uninspired next to dishes like rye-aged duck ($26). For the particularly voracious, there's a jaw-dropping chef's board to conquer with a hulking 32-ounce bone-in rib eye, bone marrow and sauce Périgueux (market price).
Finish things off with a cocktail in lieu of dessert. The Margo ($14) is a thick, Frosty-like shake imbued with Hangar One vodka, St. George coffee liqueur, Averna, cocoa and coconut milk. It reminds us of a Girl Scout Samoa cookie, all grown up.
Fantastic flavors prevail at River North restaurant Oak & Char
Review: Oak & Char
217 W. Huron St. 312-643-2427
Rating: !!! 1/2 (out of 4) Heating up
God damn the bloomers.
I know you want to know what exactly that means, but we can't talk about vintage undergarments until we discuss where I am, which is the old Graham Elliot restaurant space in River North. It is now Oak & Char, a new restaurant from former Untitled partner Art Mendoza and former Untitled executive chef Joseph Heppe. When I think of Untitled, I think of bros, beers and beef. All of these things are fine, especially on a trying weekday night when you need some suds-and-steak sustenance, but this was the weekend. I was on a hot date. I was looking for some adventurous food and ambience, not bass and burgers.
There is progress. Unlike the name Untitled, which feels like a failure in creativity, Oak & Char is at least specific, connoting something outdoorsy and smoky. Then again, I'm still left wondering if this new restaurant is built on the idea of what it's like to dine inside a bourbon barrel. Will there be a simulated forest fire mid-meal? Who can say? The only way to really know was to stop in and find out.
Granny knickers forever
So, back to the bloomers. The first thing I noticed after stepping inside Oak & Char is that there were at least 30 light fixtures—some hanging from the ceiling, others banquette-mounted lamps—all wrapped in saggy, pleated white sheets. The place looks like what I imagine the laundry room at an Old West brothel must have been like. One or two of these fixtures would have been cool, but the entire room is overkill. I was worried I would be suffocated by underwear.
This was not lost on the Oak & Char team. "Oh, you mean the granny panties?" Heppe said. "Yeah, some of us were on the fence about those. It was maybe about 50/50 with us, and now it's about 60/40 [in favor] with our customers. Jordan, the designer, said that they offered a touch of femininity to the space. We figured they'd be controversial, but it's good to get people talking."
The "Jordan" of whom Heppe speaks is Jordan Mozer, a designer known for whimsical restaurant and hotel interiors. I'm not sure I agree with the call on the light treatments here, but Mozer's brilliance is on display in the live-edge wooden dining tables (which come from a single fallen tree according to Heppe) and the charred wood-plank lined walls Mozer created by torching lumber in his backyard. The custom hardware, including black-metal oak leaf door pulls, is also pretty cool.
If I've spent too much time hating on the bloomers, it's because they were basically the only thing wrong with my dinner. My server, Jerrod, was the best server I have had in Chicago this year. He was opinionated, engaged and knowledgeable. He introduced himself by saying, "Hi, I'm Jerrod … like The Galleria of Jewelry. I'll be your server for the evening. " I know this sounds cheesy and premeditated, but the way he delivered the line as he poured my wine (Oak & Char was BYOB when I visited, but has since received its liquor license) felt spontaneous. Jerrod was charming and disarming. The ice broken, he confirmed that the ravioli and the duck must bPoultry power
Jerrod was right. The duck ($26, pictured above) is hung to dry in front of a fan for days in the restaurant's walk-in cooler and is splashed with Rittenhouse rye and left to cure some more. Its flavors were concentrated like a dry-aged steak, and its flesh was spicier and richer than your average duck. The rare, juicy meat was enhanced by a sweet smear of concord grape jam and a drizzle of duck liver vinaigrette.
Even better than the duck are the MSG chicken wings ($7). Before you protest that you're allergic to the stuff or it gives you headaches, know that the MSG in question is not the salty Chinese takeout staple, but a word play on the chicken's glaze ingredients, which include maple syrup, sherry and gochujang, or Korean red pepper paste. If there is a better chicken wing in Chicago, I haven't had it. Heppe said these wings were inspired by the popular Seoul Sassy-marinated wings from Crisp (also one of my favorites). "We tried confiting the chicken and a bunch of other techniques, but the chicken was never as crisp or juicy as we liked it," he said. "So we just old-fashioned double-fried it." Heppe makes it sound like he's an aw-shucks southern grandma, but grandmas don't also mix glucose into their glaze to give it a thick, satisfying texture or coat their wings in a mix of potato starch and low-protein Wondra flour to create a super-crispy flaky pie-like crust when fried. The smoked-cilantro yogurt dipping sauce served underneath the MSG wings also rocks; it's a complex, imaginative equivalent to a cooling blue cheese sauce for a buffalo wing.
Rave-worthy ravioli and romesco
The ravioli doppio ($16) had a fine custard-yellow hue and two chambers, one filled with a fine celery root puree and the other with maitake mushrooms. As I bit the pasta, which is blanketed in a gooey truffle fondue and encrusted with a smattering of hazelnut, the grassy celery flavor mingles with the earthy, almost soil-like musk of the mushroom and the creamy, nutty fondue. The combination coats my mouth in a comforting, soul-satisfying richness. If your life ever becomes a country song—i.e. you got fired, your wife left you and someone shot your dog—this is the pasta you should eat to salve those wounds.
One of my favorite dishes in Chicago was Mercat a la Planxa's shishito peppers served with salbitxada, a sauce similar to romesco featuring red pepper, vinegar and crunchy toasted bread bits. Heppe, who worked at Mercat, has updated the dish, creating a southern-inflected romesco dip for his shishito peppers ($7) made with crushed peanuts instead of bread. He also shaves dehydrated Benton's country ham over the whole thing to add a wispy, smoky and salty component—think bacon floss.
Heppe days are here again
The only thing I didn't particularly love was a jar of cold-smoked oysters ($13), pickled peppers and lemon served with buttery crackers. The dish wasn't bad, but the pickling juices overpowered any subtle notes of oyster flavor. That being said, if you can't tell, I'm a huge fan of Heppe. It's always fun to look forward to a new Paul Kahan joint or check out something from Stephanie Izard, but it's a special rush to experience the burgeoning talent of a chef that's relatively unknown—at least for now.
Joseph Heppe is a chef to watch. He honed his skills at Vermilion, Mercat a la Planxa and Untitled, but Oak & Char is the first time he's working unfettered and putting those influences together to create an exciting modern Midwestern melting-pot cuisine grounded in Asian, Spanish and American ingredients and technique. The food is exciting, the service is excellent and, except for those weird underwear chandeliers, the room is warm and inviting.
25 New Restaurants to Try
A new American restaurant took over the former Graham Elliot space in River North. Chef Joseph Heppe (formerly of Untitled) pays tribute to all things aged in oak and charred over flames, including rye-aged duck breast with concord grape mosto, parsnips and duck liver vinaigrette.
217 W. Huron St.; 312-643-2427
Gaze Upon the Wood Cabin Wonder of Oak + Char; Opening Soon in River North
With charred wood all around and white, pillowy drapery hanging from the ceiling representing clouds, the design elements of Oak + Char, opening very soon (they're hoping for this week), are quite integral to the menu's ode to flame. You have already seen executive chef Joseph Heppe's menu (along with the beverages soon to be available), today take a look inside one of the fall's most anticipated openings.
Oak + Char
I can’t drive anywhere right now without being distracted by the colors of fall. The pictures the trees are painting with their vibrant colors are inspiring and take my breath away. Everywhere I go, trees are on my mind and I feel like I have tunnel vision.
So when I was invited to go to the “soft-opening” of Oak + Char (217 West Huron), I was intrigued. (Get it, there is a type of TREE in the name! My segues are almost as inspiring as fall colors, right?)
Oak + Char Could Be Coming to River North Any Day Now
The former home of Graham Elliot the restaurant will become a more affordable, neighborhood-friendly spot with some cheffy touches—pretzel spaetzle, anyone?
With plans to open any day now, Oak + Char (217 W. Huron St., 312-643-2427) will occupy the 150-seat converted-warehouse space vacated by Graham Elliot the restaurant.
Oak and Char Will Replace Graham Elliot, Open This Month
A new restaurant that uses charred wood on the walls and in the kitchen will open this month in the former Graham Elliot restaurant at 217 W. Huron St.
The name Oak + Char will be easy to remember for diners inside the 150-plus seat restaurant, where oak barrels will cure pre-mixed cocktails, black metal oak leaf sculptures serve as doorknobs and light fixtures, and the walls are lined with blackened Douglas fir planks that designer Jordan Mozer of Mozer and Associates charred himself in his West Loop backyard.