Last month, Bon Appetit’s Andrew Knowlton penned a fine piece naming Washington, DC, Restaurant City of the Year. You won’t catch a shred of dissent from this corner. We get back to DC regularly for work - at least twice a month - and remain giddy about the broad range of culinary options and the pace at which strong new restaurants continue to open. One piece of the article especially resonates with us:
"What all these restaurants have in common is fearlessness. There are no consensus polls being taken on what diners might want or need. Instead, these are chefs and restaurateurs who are simply taking their passions and diverse backgrounds and turning those into the restaurants of their dreams. And thankfully, these days, they have a hungry and food-savvy audience that is willing to try new things. I mean, have you seen the lines at Rose’s Luxury and Bad Saint these days?"
- Andrew Knowlton, Bon Appetit
Culinary fearlessness is something P+K is all about encouraging in this town, and Oakhart Social is certainly blazing that trail. The Devil is in the details at this garage-turned-restaurant, from the mismatched vintage silverware to the Christmas Story leg lamp behind the bar. We love the sophisticated grease monkey spirit that lives on in the space - a refreshing reincarnation of a former auto repair shop. The folks behind it have maintained many of those elements to keep it rough and rusty, but have added an open, lively energy thanks to the whitewashed brick walls, huge window doors and incognito lighting scattered throughout. It's approachable and has an attitude all at the same time, bringing a fresh face and fresh grit to West Main Street. Every dish has a bold mojo that hits us in the mouth only the way Chicago transplant Chef Tristan Wraight can.
Recs + Rants
The sandwich that launched 1,000 tropes. We talk about the Open-Faced Chicken Fried Octopus Sando more than we should admit. It inspires poetic musings, metaphors and mischievous grins. To quote one of our food-loving friends who fell under its spell: "This is your spirit sandwich." Embrace it. Go with it. And good luck fending off the knives and forks of your table mates. There won’t be leftovers. Only giddy WTF?! expressions on faces all around. We want to see this open-faced, tentacle-filled joint up against another local badass dish, Lampo’s Hellboy Pizza. That would be one heck of a culinary cage match.
Ain’t no thang. Add Chicken Wangz to the list of dishes you’ll develop an instant stalker crush on. Don't be foolish and overlook this menu item because it's just chicken wings - one of the reasons Oakhart does what it does so well is that it's able to take classic, unassuming dishes and completely transform them. You know before-and-after photos? All previous wings you've eaten are "before." Oakhart's are the "after". We actually checked with the management about whether they do takeout orders on Wangz. The answer was a hard no, so we will happily continue dining in to get our wang-fix.
Pairing Tip: If there is one pairing that could bring even the devil to his knees, it’s the unsettlingly satisfying Wangz and Quinta de Raza Vinho Verde. From northern Portugal to the American south, this international odd couple is dynamite. Brimming with youthful green fruit and grassiness on the nose and slight effervescence on the palate, the Quinta is the perfect yin to the Wang yang. In the event this pour isn’t available the night of your visit, don’t hesitate to ask for the inside scoop on a suitable stand-in. Oakhart co-owner and wine cellar czar, Ben Clore, has stocked plenty of gems - many on tap - that will do the trick.
P-I-Z-Z-A. You can't go wrong with any of Oakhart's pizzas, but we are incredibly partial to the House Sausage Pizza. It comes freshly wood-fired, dripping with gouda and fennel and sprinkled with the delicious, spicy bites of sausage. It's the perfect appetizer or main meal, and great to split with others at the table. Be warned though, a finite amount of pizza dough is made per day, so if you're dining after 8 pm you may be out of luck. Speaking from experience, it's heartbreaking, so dine on the earlier side if this 'za is on your list.
Garden game. One thing we dig about the mostly small-plate format is how we never leave feeling like we need to unbutton our pants. Singularly, some dishes can be rich (oh hey, pork belly!), but when you’re sharing these and augmenting dinner with some of the most irresistible veggies in the league, you won’t carry a doggie bag of guilt out the door. Charred Carrots are an automatic order for the crew. Our lovely server Tareq says it’s Wraight's take on peas and carrots of childhood. Charred perfectly, these recently exhumed beauties are dressed with a light buttermilk dressing and topped with delightfully crunchy stash of pea-shoots. Be sure to grab one of the charred spicy pecan bits - they are a punch of savory-sweet spice that gives perfect pause, at which point you realize what a great idea it is to treat vegetables like they are meat and deserving of star status. We can't say it enough - the devil is firmly, happily rooted in the details. And hey, don't stop at the carrots - the Shaved Salad with a shower of crispy bread crumbs and bright shots of carrots, fennel and watermelon radish to cleanse the palate and the body. It's a shot of health behind a shroud of intimated sin that tastes like an off-day for the diet. Hit the Roasted Beets too. Beets get an odd rap sometimes. We don’t mess with them too much at home, but love diving in when a ballsy chef like this is behind the wheel. TMI alert, we'll even brave the beets to accept the fleeting but false alarm pang of imminent death in the restroom the morning after said beets.
Bar flight. If you hit the bar first, you’ll come face to face with the most lovable mofo in the business. One minute you want to bro-hug Albee Pedone, the next you want to ask him to get your back in a knife fight. Either could get weird, so keep it on the bar level and opt for a cocktail, or two. You’ll be hard pressed deciding on one, the list is so deep and dope. Perusing it is like flipping through a collection of Raymond Carver stories - the titles smack of whimsy with a subtle dash of imminent dread. He recently turned us on to the virtues of Ransom Dry Vermouth, a key ingredient in two of our favorites: The Paradigm Shift (a subtle commentary on the need for more balls in this town?) features the Ransom Dry as the headliner with sage, tarragon water and anise. It’s a lovely herbal opener for sipping and savoring and tastes like a gussied up Cocchi Americano aperitif. We also dig on the Perfect Perfect Manhattan with its hybrid offering of the two main components: a blend of Templeton and Woodford rye for the muscle and a combo of vermouths, Ransom Dry and Carpano Antica Sweet, for the muse. If you like a bit of smoke and burn on the way down, try what sounds right: the Smokey Rose. Fresh lemon juice, rosemary simple syrup, and ginger beer freshen up your tastebuds, then the rabble-rousing duo of peaty scotch and rye show up to the party.
Get your glamp on. Our go-to bookend is the S'mores Bread Pudding, an urbane deconstructed take on the campfire classic. They had us at puppy chow - the perfect descriptor for the texture of graham crackers in this dessert - and the fact that the entire dessert rests on a puddle of melted chocolate sauce. One bite will quickly transport you to a cozy nook in the Blue Ridge, chilling under a blanket of stars before you crash in your fancy Airstream.
The din. The driving ethos of Oakhart is "be social, eat together." Diners catch that drift and roll with it naturally. It gets rowdy in there, nearly reaching echo chamber levels. This means missing some of the table conversation, which is fine if you’re not that into your dining companions. Since we are, we end up shouting to be heard and leaning in to hear. It keeps you on your toes. Now, if you’ve had too many drinks (we have), the din combined with your state of mind could leave you spaced out and vague the next morning on several shreds of conversation. So be it. We'd rather dinner be a party than a wake.
The kids are alright. Our kids are no strangers to Oakhart. The place seems to be more family friendly pre-rush, sometime between 5pm and 7pm. If you bring kids, beware that the food fires in the order it's made, so that pizza your kid ordered might come at the very end of the meal. While you wait for that wonderful wood-fired fare, introduce the kids to some vegetables with attitude.
Dress the part. Oakhart's half-tough, half-sweet demeanor is reflected in the style of both patrons and staff. Click here to read more.
Right now Oakhart Social is the baddest man in the whole damn town - Cville’s own Leroy Brown. Coincidence that Wraight hails from Chicago, the same city that mean sonofabitch Leroy roamed and ruled? We’re not saying; we're just happy to pick up what he's laying down.