Black Oak Grill, which opened this winter in Midtown Crossing, is set up to appeal to as many people as possible.
It has television sets for those who want to watch sports and clusters of art posters for those who could forgo televisions. The music is light country or classic rock. The menu tries to please everyone with burgers, Italian, comfort food, fish and standard appetizers such as spinach dip and boneless wings. A sign advertises a “farm-to-table” concept, an of-the-moment claim I thought was a stretch once I looked at the menu.
I had several problems during my three recent visits to Black Oak, but my biggest is that the restaurant feels, simply, generic.
It took over the former Portovino space. Open for only nine months, Portovino closed last fall. Before that, Loft 610 occupied the huge bay for six months. The space has proved to be a struggle for all three restaurants.
The space has been reconfigured. A huge oven — which took up most of the restaurant's west side as part of an open kitchen — is gone, replaced with rows of booths. The second floor, which felt odd in both of the previous restaurants, is closed off.
Now a large open bar in the center of the restaurant separates a similar seating setup on both sides. On all three visits, I sat on the west side, and there were diners on the east or by the bar area on only one visit.
My husband and I were at one of three occupied tables at a weeknight dinner. The waiter recommended that we start with the spinach dip. It was similar to what I've had at many other places, and it could have used a bit of salt. About a third of the accompanying tortilla chips were stale.
General Manager Mike Cizek told me in an interview later the spinach dip is the most popular appetizer at the restaurant.
My husband asked our waiter what he recommended between the meatloaf and the chicken parmesan. The waiter said he hadn't tried either, but noted that the chicken parmesan was huge.
Though my husband wasn't that hungry, he ordered it, and it was indeed large, covering a plate the size of a serving platter, probably enough food to serve a small family. The pounded-thin chicken was fine but the penne pasta was cold, rubbery and seemed reheated. Two slices of baguette toast that came with the pasta were rock-hard and coated in red pepper flakes. My husband described it, accurately, as like hardtack. When he broke a piece off, crumbs and pepper flakes flew all over our booth.
Cizek said the bread wasn't supposed to be so hard, but it does always come coated with red pepper flakes and cheese. He told me the bread at the restaurant is made at the locally owned Rotella's bakery, which surprised me because I've had Rotella's bread elsewhere and it's never been too hard.
Cizek also said part of the wait staff's training includes trying the food.
“The server should have been aware,” he said. “They eat here all the time.”
I tried the iron skillet trout. The fish was nicely cooked and flaky, but I found it odd that the skin-on filet was breaded on the outside of the skin. It had a crust made mostly from toasted almonds and bread crumbs. Each time I took a bite, I had to peel off a chunk of skin and lose half the breading. The flaky, delicate nature of the fish got lost and it was too cumbersome to eat.
The “pinot-infused cranberries” advertised in the side of rice pilaf had no distinctive wine flavor.
Cizek said the fish is breaded and then pan-fried.
“It should be an even coating of breading all the way around,” he said.
Prices at Black Oak are reasonable. Entrees cost between $10 and $18 and sandwiches around $8. The wine list, too, is reasonably priced, with most glasses around $7.
Service was better on our second dinner visit, and a more-attentive waiter brought us a warm loaf of bread that we didn't get on the first visit. The bread, again from Rotella's, was hot and good.
My husband tried the meatloaf this time. The meat was ground too finely, which threw off the texture. The “home cooking” dishes on Black Oak's menu, Cizek told me later, are a big part of the concept. He said the meatloaf is popular because it's something diners can't find everywhere.
Our waiter was on top of things throughout this visit, constantly refilling our water and promptly bringing me a clean fork when I dropped mine.
I had a turkey burger with a nice flavor served on a bun that I learned later is made locally at LeQuartier Bakery. A side of shoestring French fries was fine.
For dessert, the waiter recommended the Kahlua Ding Dong, a housemade dessert that is exactly what it sounds like. Chocolaty and moist with a nice amount of cream and just a touch of kahlua, it was easily the best thing we ate at Black Oak Grill. I'd order it again.
I told Cizek I was surprised at the “farm-to-table” sign. He told me the restaurant works with three local bakeries: Rotella's and LeQuartier for sandwich bread, baguettes and hamburger buns and Bliss Bakery for all the desserts except the Ding Dong. The restaurant gets its beef from Sysco, a national food service company, but Cizek said it's Buckhead beef, which originates in Nebraska and is shipped elsewhere for processing and distribution. The restaurant also serves a handful of local beers, including Empyrean Oatmeal Stout and Lucky Bucket.
To me, and, I think, to others in the restaurant community, a farm-to-table restaurant signifies a place with a deep focus on local food that's reflected throughout the menu. When I see “farm-to-table” on a menu or a sign, I expect a chef who shops at local markets for meat, poultry, vegetables and other ingredients and creates a menu on a seasonal basis. I'm not convinced that's what is happening at Black Oak.
I met a friend for lunch another day and we were one of quite a few tables — the lunch hour was the busiest time I saw at the restaurant. We kept it simple. She tried the “over the top” burger, which came juicy and nicely cooked to the medium-rare she requested. The toasted, flavorful brioche bun was another hit. She had issues with a couple of the toppings: A cheese sauce supposed to be made with pepperjack was tasteless in contrast to the handful of seed-intact sliced jalapenos that rested on the bottom bun and set her mouth on fire.
Cizek said the burger should only have a couple of jalapenos, which the restaurant pickles in-house.
Her potato soup was nicely seasoned and studded with bacon bits and green onions, which added a nice touch. But the texture was grainy. My tomato soup could have been thinned a bit, but I liked the rich flavor.
I ate the soup with a five-cheese grilled cheese sandwich that was a touch greasy but otherwise good. The waiter told me the kitchen had recently replaced tomatoes on the sandwich with roasted red peppers, and I liked those peppers a lot. They added a smoky heat that was quite nice. The sandwich also had a few slices of crispy bacon and was on crunchy LeQuartier bread with a nice, wholesome texture.
Cizek said so far, feedback from diners has been good.
“We have been pleasantly surprised,” he said. “People seem to like everything.”
I asked him about portion sizes — reasonable at lunch but, in my opinion, too large at dinner.
“We want to give our guests value. The most amount of food for the least amount of money,” he said.
I can't argue with the prices — for the most part, they were right. I would say, however, that originality, concept and execution are as important as value.
And I'm not sure savvy, food-loving Omahans are ready to bypass their favorite local places for a restaurant that has some work to do in those areas.
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