Oak Steakhouse made a big splash when it opened in 2005, and it quickly earned a loyal local following and reputation as one of Charleston's top spots for impressing clients while blowing through an expense account.
Last fall, when founding chef Brett McKee moved on to pursue his Roadside Kitchens venture, managing partner Steve Palmer played a trump card and lured Jeremiah Bacon away from Carolina's to become Oak's new executive chef. Bacon brings with him a serious big-kitchen resumé, which includes stints in New York City with Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin and Thomas Keller at Per Se, as well as a noted commitment to fresh, locally sourced ingredients. Over the past few months he's steadily updated Oak's menu to make it his own. "It's more than a revamp," Steve Palmer told the City Paper. "It's a shift in consciousness."
That goal, as Bacon has described it, is to bring a farm-to-plate aesthetic to a classic steakhouse setting. The ambitious experiment is reflected in the kitchen itself, where Bacon works side by side with chef de cuisine Joseph Jacobson, who has been there since the restaurant's early days and provides continuity in everything from Oak's more popular recipes to the butchering of the Certified Angus Beef in which the restaurant specializes.
The result is an intriguing blend: the wanton excess of a high-end steakhouse with the pure, intense flavors of the farm-to-table style.
Some of the changes are subtle, such as the sauce for the "bistro cut" tenderloin ($24), which used to be a gorgonzola fondue but is now made with goat cheese from Johns Island's Burden Creek Dairy. The wedge salad ($10) swaps out the usual iceberg in favor of Bibb lettuce from Moncks Corner's Kurios Farms, while oyster mushrooms from the monks at Mepkin Abbey appear in everything from the seared sea scallop dish ($14) to the wild mushroom risotto ($21).
The clams casino ($14) applies a classic preparation to shellfish from local harvester Clammer Dave, and it's delightfully deft in execution. The tender succulent clams blend perfectly with the crispy crumb crust, while the garlic, red peppers, and bacon remain in the background as subtle, pleasing accents. The lobster macaroni and cheese ($15), a long-time crowd favorite, has been updated to good effect with the addition of big chunks of shrimp. The pasta is actually orzo instead of macaroni, and it's enrobed in a ridiculously rich, creamy sauce with lumps of lobster and shrimp that burst with flavor.
The fresh local stuff is highlighted in the nightly specials, like the recent asparagus salad ($12), a simultaneous display of simplicity and excess. The simplicity is in the preparation: ultra-fresh asparagus blanched a deep green and served cold with pickled red onions, a few quarters of golden beets and cherry tomatoes, and little clumps of goat cheese sprinkled over the top. The excess is in the sheer volume: several dozen pencil-thin stalks, as big as the full rubber-banded bundle you would buy at your local farmer's market. But after a single forkful of the cold, pristine asparagus, it ceases to seem excessive at all.
Despite all the local produce, the steaks are still the center of attention. The biggest of the big wanton steaks is the 24-ounce bone-in rib-eye ($54). It's downsized a bit from the 36-ounce version that once anchored the menu, but it's still impressive in its own right: a circular cut with a big bone handle from the frenched rib.
The filet mignon ($36 for an 8 oz. filet, $42 for a 10 oz. wrapped in bacon) is tall and well seared, with a tender, silky texture that falls away under the weight of a hefty steak knife. For intense beef flavor, the New York Strip ($47) is an even better bet. The long slab of meat arrives on a wide metal plate set inside a wooden charger, with waves of heat radiating from the metal, and the fattier cut gives a wonderfully primal dose of flavor. You choose from a list of classic sauces that includes hollandaise, bearnaise, and gorgonzola cream, but fortunately they're served in stainless steel ramekins on the side, for the flavorful prime steaks don't need any help.
It wouldn't be a classic steakhouse without a list of big-ticket sides, and Oak has plenty of old favorites like roasted mushrooms ($8), whipped potatoes ($7.50), and steamed spinach ($7.50). There are a few Bacon innovations, too, like the bone marrow bread pudding ($8). It looks every bit like a serving of french toast, only it's made from thin slices of brioche saturated in an ultra-rich, reduced cream sauce that's infused with savory roasted bone marrow. It's a dish that's so heavy and rich it might knock you to the floor if you tried to eat it all by yourself, but it's just right for a little shared decadence with your table mates.
As I see it, there's just one inherent flaw in the whole concept: delicious and tempting as the new local vegetable- and seafood-based offerings are, Oak is still a temple of beef, and it's hard to go there for a big night out and not order a steak. And that means you will likely miss out on some really fine dishes. Perhaps the dish most representative of Bacon's farm-to-table (and ocean-to-table) style is the sautéed flounder ($28). The two thick filets of flounder, with their tender flaky texture and golden brown sear, are masterful, and the accompanying vegetables make it even better. Roasted oyster mushrooms add an almost-beefy flavor and great body, as does the rich celeriac purée that lines the bottom of the bowl. The big pieces of bok choy — chewy, stringy, and absolutely delicious — seal the deal: There's some seriously good cooking going on in that small open kitchen.
To round out an evening in appropriate style, forgo the massive slices of double chocolate cake with chocolate mousse filling ($12) and order the goat cheese cheesecake ($12). It's the ultimate fusion of traditional steakhouse fare and fresh, local ingredients. A sweet hazelnut crust lies under a tall, hearty disk of cheesecake made from tangy Burden Creek goat cheese, which is topped with slices of red grapefruit and strips of candied lemon and surrounded by a pool of citrus-infused local honey. It's simply a splendid dessert.
When you add in the atmosphere and the service, Oak has all the right elements for a big night out on the town. It's in a restored bank building that dates back to 1850, which offers both a beautiful and a challenging setting for a restaurant, with narrow rooms that get crowded very quickly and servers running plates up two flights of stairs to reach the tables on the third floor.
In some ways, though, that just adds energy and charm. The ground floor is all brown wood and leather, with an eight-stool bar and a couple of two-person half-moon booths with a clear view of the action in the small open kitchen in the back. As you move upstairs, first to the open dining area on the second floor landing and then to the three separate dining rooms on the third floor, things get more elegant and sedate, with white tablecloths, exposed mudbrick walls hung with big colorful paintings, and stunning blue curtains framing the tall windows that look down over Broad Street.
Fortunately, the service at Oak is on par with the digits on the check. From taking our reservations to saying goodnight, everyone was elegant, professional, and attentive. The servers knew the menu inside and out, making helpful recommendations for both food and wine. Service is often as much about what you don't see as what you do, and on one of our visits there were several potentially disastrous mishaps that the entire staff handled with grace and ease, ensuring that the night came off right.
So, in the end, does the local-centric steakhouse concept work? It does for me. Bacon has reinvigorated Oak and given serious eaters a compelling reason to go back for a visit. And the high-profile location offers Bacon a more prominent stage upon which to showcase his already well-respected talents. Even if you can't bring yourself to order a mushroom risotto or flounder dish when there are massive hunks of beef demanding your attention, the many creative new items in the appetizer and sides selections make it possible to sneak in a few local delicacies while warming up for the red wine and red meat. And that's a concept I can get behind.