Restaurant Review: Oak Long Bar + Kitchen in Back Bay
Crab-asparagus gratin, $15. (Photos by Ekaterina Smirnova)
The dining room at the new Oak Long Bar + Kitchen at the Fairmont Copley Plaza can feel magicalâ€”with the sweep and elegance of a grand urban space in the heart of the most beautiful square in the countryâ€™s most historical cityâ€”which demonstrates the success of a recent reinvention that kept the best of the old and added much new.
The renovation that joined the already vast Oak Bar with the Oak Room shows on the walls, the leather banquettes, the heavy wooden tablesâ€¦all of it telegraphing a modern opulence. What remains of the old? Two-story Palladian windows that look out onto the square; beautifully preserved ceilings; the grandeur of a Beaux Arts train station. And whatâ€™s new? White-painted woodwork to replace some of the dark-stained wood of hallowed memory; an aptly long L-shaped bar with tufted-leather stools that overlook an open kitchen with a hearth oven; a large communal high table. That magic I speak of? It comes when the huge, 146-seat room is about a quarter full, when you can hear yourself think and have a crack at being shown to your table right away. The space is typically packed and fantastically noisy, with servers that can be intermittently inattentive and more eager to please than able to deliver. The crowds are chic, urban, international: Theyâ€™re looking for a scene, and getting one.
The masses might well be coming for the drinks. I donâ€™t think theyâ€™re coming for the food, which is less successful at marrying the old with the new. That Oak Long Bar serves any noteworthy food at allâ€”and it does, a littleâ€”is an achievement. But its lasting value is likely to be as an enormous, luxurious room worth seeing and being seen in. Thereâ€™s an overhauled menu with a long cocktail list featuring expertly made, innovative drinks, and a wide variety of small plates, many of which show off just what that stone-floored oven can do.
Roast chicken, $22
Under the direction of the German-born and trained executive chef Stefan Jarausch (who for four years prior had served as chef at the Oak Room), the restaurant has glommed onto the farm-to-table theme that rules the day, but that might not really be suited to an institution geared toward serving club-style food to large crowds. Jarausch does work an impressive number of New Englandâ€“centric ingredients into his dishes: Vermont-made Maplebrook cheese, Backyard Farms Maine tomatoes, Powder Point oysters, Cold Fusion gelato from Walpole. You get the idea that a chef, not just a corporation, devised the menu. Many of the dishes, though, have a trend-compilation air to them, which gives them just the corporate feel the restaurant seems to want to avoid.
Thatâ€™s too bad, because a few dishes are as good as anything in town. For instance, the â€śfarm chicken soupâ€ť ($10), with its distillation of chicken essence from the sort of accumulation of bones only a big kitchen can compile, was as wonderfully clear as a consommĂ©â€”the kind of technique only a classically trained chef like Jarausch can muster. The crab-asparagus gratin ($15) was a similarly lovely dishâ€”a custardlike cream of fresh Jonah crabmeat, crĂ¨me fraĂ®che, and mayonnaise topped with grated cheese and baked in a cast-iron dish until browned. It demonstrated a real talent for highlighting the delicate, clear flavor of a local product: The slightly saline Maine crabmeat was moist and plentiful, the thin asparagus adding color and a bit of texture but not distracting from the taste. If only it had been served warm.
Chopped shrimp cocktail, $15
Pan-seared steelhead salmonÂ with heirloom-tomato-and-cucumber salad, $25
Jarausch has revived and revised some of the former restaurantâ€™s standbys, such as the â€śchopped shrimp cocktailâ€ť ($15), with large chunks of shrimp coated with a generous amount of cocktail sauce spiked with fresh horseradish, Tabasco, and serrano chili. It was served in a lowball glass with a Maine kelp salad that had a silky mouth-feel. Oysters Rockefeller ($15 for three) had lots of fresh spinach but too much of a cream sauce that was overwhelmed with Pernod.
Itâ€™s fitting that the simpler main courses were the best. Roast chicken ($22) came from the hearth oven in its own cast-iron pan, broken down so you got big pieces with crisp skin and juicy flesh. A buttery pan-juice sauce fortified with veal stock was another example of what a big kitchen with an experienced chef can do. It was really satisfying, though the roasted potatoes alongside were shriveled, as were the â€śroasted market vegetablesâ€ť ($7), ordered as a side dish. All of the vegetables are pre-roasted and then reheated, so almost without exception they were desiccated but wetâ€”an unappealing combination.
A steak salad ($25) came with three ovals of rosy-pink grilled skirt steak with an intensely savory flavor that belied its simple salt-and-pepper seasoning. As with the chicken, this was a generous portion of meat, accompanied by a deconstructed collection of fresh gem lettuce with a creamy homemade ranch dressing spiked with blue cheese. There was also a fine, flavorful burger ($19) made of rib-eye and short rib, the bun slathered with a charred-onion aioli; and pan-seared steelhead salmon ($25) with a convincingly summery heirloom-tomato-and-cucumber salad.
Oak Long Barâ€™s clubby dining room has an old-school vibe with a few decidedly modern touches.
Attempts at complexity, though, generally went awry, most notably in a kind of surf â€™nâ€™ turf tagliatelle ($28) that wound up a sloppy miss, with lobster meat and a big square of dark-braised short rib plunked on top. With the exception of the chicken, the main courses from the hearth oven were overstuffed and overcooked, like the roast lobster ($40)â€”which, despite a peppery harissa rub and a brushing of citrus butter, was terribly dryâ€”and the equally dry â€śNew England clam bakeâ€ť ($34).
Desserts (all $10) wereâ€¦big, including a gigantic whoopie pie with dull cake and innocuous chocolate gelato. Best was a huge square of crĂ¨me fraĂ®che cheesecake, nicely lemony and served with a seasonal cherry compote in hibiscus syrup.
The servers were the best illustration of the old-new dynamic at play. Hosts tended to be young, appraising you for your coolness quotientâ€”and, one night, unapologetically waving us to an antechamber to wait 50 minutes after weâ€™d made a reservation. The servers, in monogrammed jackets, had a friendly, old-shoe vibe, with a seen-everything air because, in fact, they have worked at the hotel (which is unionized) for a long time. That tension makes Oak Long Bar interestingâ€”and, at least during that magical uncrowded hour, fun to be in, too.
Other Menu Highlights
Steak salad, $25
Oak Long Bar + Kitchen, 138 St. James Ave., Boston, 617-585-7222, oaklongbarkitchen.com.
Critic Corby Kummerâ€”an editor at The Atlantic and author of The Pleasures of Slow Foodâ€”has been reviewing Greater Bostonâ€™s top restaurants in our pages since 1997.
Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2012/12/restaurant-review-oak-long-bar-kitchen-back-bay/