Saturday, July 11, 2009

QUICKVIEW: Restaurant Oak- ++ / $$

I remember the first time I drove down Hope street, when not specifically lost, but still trying to find I95. I spotted Restaurant Oak, or Nero's Oak, or Nero's Restaurant Oak, depending on which sign you choose to read. It was certainly a metropolitan restaurant. Trendy lighting, sidewalk tables, a "happenin'" atmosphere. How the hell did I not know about this place? That was years ago. Oak has persisted, as has my curiosity, which finally got the better of me a few nights ago.

Torn between Chez Pascal and trying someplace new, I decided that [nothing x ventured] / (nothing x gained) = a null set... or something. I worked it out on a napkin and it made sense. The ambiance was very nice. Oak's color scheme is almost entirely a burgundy red combined with brown and a smattering of yellow. The fall color scheme works well, but seemed a bit odd during the summer. Large wooden oak leaf shapes pepper the design and add serious character. The tables were well-dressed, even though they had butcher's paper on top. The lighting was romantic yet not too dark.

The dinner bread was good. It was more like a cheesy garlic bread, or perhaps cold pizza, with a whipped garlic butter on the side. The bruschetta appetizer was odd. Four good-sized pieces of toasted baguette, piled high with... beans. Alright. Not a traditional choice, but I'll give anything a chance. And it was good. Nothing special, but good. It also had a weird effect on me. The pasty, enveloping, super-savory flavor of the beans overpowered the entire experience. It just tasted like beans with bread, with the slightest hint of the pancetta hidden within. Again, it was actually decent, but my palate tired of the flavor very quickly. It tasted like simple comfort food. Very simple comfort food. My partner nailed it when she said it "tasted like chicken pot pie."

A similar situation with the entrees. The trio of crabcakes was a one-shot flavor. It had aioli, which added some kick to it, but it was still just a crabcake. By about halfway through the second cake, my mouth began to grow tired. There was nothing to stand out. No zing of a fruit, or sweetness of balsamic, or crispness of a vegetable. The minor addition of lemon juice squeezed from a very small wedge helped a little, but the side dish of (very good) sweet potato fries did nothing for the cause. The entire plate gelled into a blurry melange of flavor with little character. Crab cakes are generally an appetizer for a reason, there's just not enough there to make an entire entree.

The pork medallions, again, told a similar tale to our tongues. You'd think that pork, with mushrooms, glaze, and pan fried apples would have some zing, but no. Nothing. Again, comfort food. It was good, I can't get on it for that, but it was just so dull. Not bland. I don't think bland is the right word, just dull. There was nothing that became the centerpiece of the flavor. It was a totally acceptable pile of well-cooked food. The pork was tender and better cooked than from many restaurants. The apples were fresh. The plate was presented decently well. It was just so unremarkable it's almost remarkable.

The desserts were a bit of a letdown, but I'm getting used to that. So few places have really great desserts. You'll find the usual suspects of carrot cake, tiramisu, and lemon meringue pie, but that's pretty much it.

It's a problematic decision for me, since everything was good. Nothing was bad. But on the same token, nothing stood out. Nothing impressed me. If I had nowhere else to go, Oak would be a damn fine place to eat. But since I have choices, I have little motivation to go back. If you do decide to eat here, you'll be satisfied, just as I was, but perhaps a bit bored.

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959 Hope St
Providence, RI 02903

Saturday & Sunday 9:00am to 2:00pm
Wednesday through Friday 11:30am to 2:00pm
Sunday through Thursday 5:00pm to 9:30pm
Friday & Saturday 5:00pm to Whenever

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