It’s easy to be skeptical when restaurateurs from the provinces set up shop in the big city. Maybe they’ll bring suburban virtues—lack of pretension, good value, closeness to their local farmers and fishermen—or maybe they’ll be a few steps behind the times, wearing the culinary equivalent of an unironic mullet. So we wondered when Nancy Batista-Caswell, who runs acclaimed Newburyport restaurants Ceia and Brine, opened the new Oak + Rowan in Fort Point, accompanied by Justin Shoults, her exec chef from Brine. How well would her North Shore formula play to citified food geeks?
Adding star pastry chef Brian Mercury (ex-Harvest) was a smart opening gambit. For instance, his “everything squash sourdough” ($6) offers simple elements—slices of yeasty, fragrant, vegetal sourdough bread with a chili-hot togarashi dusting on its chewy crust, to be smeared alternately with kombu butter and herb ricotta—that add up smashingly. Selections from the on-trend caviar menu (tastes, $15-$25; half-ounce, $44-$74; ounce, $79-$140) benefit mightily from Mercury’s superb miniature Portuguese muffins. His work elevates every plate it appears on. (More about his desserts later.)
Oak + Rowan traffics in fairly luxurious New American cuisine with pretty platings. Baby octopus ($15) brings nice richness to its well-charred, tender specimens’ sauces with Banyuls-sweetened bone marrow. Arctic char “pastrami” ($14) evokes the smoke and spice of Nova lox in a lovely vertical presentation: a stack of excellent oat bread, kale, char, dots of creamy smoked egg yolk and a florally carved pickled onion. The superb pheasant Kotschoubey ($17), a sort of game-bird galantine, is moist, rich and delectable, its bacon-jam sauce imparting sweet smoke. Soups are served with their solid ingredients in a dry bowl and topped tableside with a pitcherful of broth (ooh!), like the perfect, limpid beef consommé ($10) floating a disk of horseradish custard and pumpernickel crumbs.
Pastas include the clever, novel doppio ravioli ($18), conjoined fat tubes alternately stuffed with purees of smoked scallop and pumpkin. Squid-ink farfalle ($24) is a visually stark plate of pheasant confit subtly sauced with lemon and sea urchin butter. Lobster and veal sweetbreads ($35) served on potato gnocchi skillfully undercuts its full-fat flavor with accents of cranberry, sea beans and bottarga, but its white-on-beige palette is markedly dull. Shoults shows confidence with big straight-up proteins like beef sirloin ($42) with a coffee rub flanked with a gorgeously unctuous, chunky tallow bread pudding, and bone-in beef rib-eye ($46) with a terrific potato suzette. You may want to save the sausage on brioche ($18) with brassica slaw for lunch; the homely dish looks comically out of place, like it stumbled into the Ritz from a backyard barbecue.
Bar manager Chris O’Neill is doing certain things right, like his crowd-pleasing, sweet-leaning, Roman-numeraled specialty cocktails including the III ($12) of tequila, blackberry puree, lime juice and simple syrup, and the V ($12) of bourbon, bitters, lemon, honey and warm-spiced Swedish punsch. The beer list is short and adequate, with six craftier drafts ($6-$9), three packaged macro lagers ($4-$6) and one cider ($5). Mixing cocktails from a tableside cart is a cute, theatrical idea that might play better were more attention paid to small craft details like better quality ice, chilling of glassware and canonical garnishes. The wine bottle list has some breadth, drawing 10 sparklers ($60-$250), 36 whites ($36-$156) and 57 reds ($46-$275) from the Americas and Europe, but lacks vintage designations, and bargains like the 2015 Clos Troteligotte K-or, a jammy malbec from Cahor, are too scant. We found more values up in the $80-$100 range, as in the 2011 Hecht & Bannier Bandol Rouge ($88), a peppery, blackish Provençal mourvedre/syrah/carignan blend.
Mercury’s desserts provide a spectacular finish, as Instagrammable as they are delicious. We sampled them all, found each amazing, but ordered seconds on the cranberry swirl fro-yo ($12), all pink pastels and elaborate flourishes atop a sheep’s-milk panna cotta, and the chocolate and cashew ($12), a fantasia of Taza chocolate, cashew mousse and mascarpone with fine brioche. His simple ice creams and sorbets ($8/scoop) are similarly fabulous and served with a wafer-thin, crisp arlette.
With the swish menu, you might expect a hushed, white-tablecloth space with stiffly formal service, but this is Fort Point, so you get a high-ceilinged 150-seat former warehouse of brick, brick, brick everywhere, lots of tall windows, industrial roll-up garage doors and a few splashes of cobalt blue in the upholstery. All those hard surfaces lead to lively but not-quite-painful noise levels. Service is well-versed in the menu’s long roster of abstruse ingredients—hi there, purple potato, haven’t seen you since the Aughts—and plenty attentive, but with a bluff, easy informality that suits the rough-hewn space.
The experience here ultimately embraces many contradictions: an elaborate-veering-on-precious culinary style that was more voguish 10 years ago, complemented with simpler, more modern dishes; a beverage program that is at its best when it doesn’t aim to fly alongside loftier nearby competitors; and a room and staff that seem at odds with the high prices, but feel informal and convivial in a way that is absolutely of-the-moment. Oak + Rowan may have brought a few quaint exurban ideas to her trendy, gentrified new urban digs, but she still has an awful lot of charm.
-Arctic char “pastrami”
-Cranberry swirl fro-yo
Oak + Rowan 321 A St., Boston (857-284-7742) oakandrowan.com
Hours: Mon.-Sat., 11:30 am-3 pm, 5:15 pm-midnight
Parking: Metered street spaces, nearby private lots and garages
Liquor: Full bar