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.”
217 W. Huron, (312) 643-2427; Oakandchar.com