950 Third St., Alpharetta, 678-722-8333
1 star (good)
“It tastes the way a pet store smells,” said my wife, not sure how to react to the bite of dry-aged steak I had just offered her.
Me, I found it thrilling. This $72 New York strip at Oak Steakhouse arrived high and chunky on a wooden platter, its smooth surface cleanly trimmed of the slick ick that had been growing on it like a cocoon. Bacteria had been feasting on this beef for weeks, and now it was our turn.
Alongside came a $49 wet-aged prime rib-eye — a paragon of steakhouse steak, seared and juicy, basted in seasoned herbed butter that pooled in its metal sizzle platter. It tasted of fat, iron and sweet, sweet American grain-fed cow.
But that dry-aged steak! It tasted of mushrooms, black truffles, blue cheese and maybe just a teensy bit of the caged small friends in Aisle 5 of the pet store. Each slice shone when cut and, though not juicy, the intensity of meaty flavor made you salivate.
As often as I’ve considered both dry-aged and wet-aged steaks over the years, I’ve never before sat down to such a master class in the differences between the two. This new Alpharetta restaurant, a second location for a popular Charleston cow palace, has made a smart choice in focusing its steak menu on a few excellent cuts. The kitchen invites you to consider how size, shape, age and cooking method matter.
Once you move beyond steaks, Oak Steakhouse seems to be a good, rather than great, restaurant. The original Oak Steakhouse in Charleston occupies a historic Broad Street building around the corner from the Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon. The architecture and history gave it half its charm; the smart Southern inflections on its traditional steakhouse menu provided the other half.
The owners have tried to re-create its spirit in a handsome, wood-toned room in the new Avalon development. Here, it feels like one more expensive steakhouse in a landscape dotted with them, but with a bit more to say about local ingredients and regional cooking than most.
Chef Chad Anderson tries to balance steakhouse indulgence with modern luxury. He dishes out great pleasure in rich, bubbly oysters Rockefeller, glazed with hollandaise and parmesan, and smoky with the inimitable taste of Benton’s bacon. His wedge salad uses tender bibb rather than iceberg, and its gentle texture lulls you into eating marbles of Georgia blue cheese, chunks of bacon and about as many eggs, hard boiled and crumbled, as it takes to make an omelette.
But he readily veers off the steakhouse script. Fat ravioli come piled in a bowl with creamed leeks, candied hazelnuts and a wheel of crisp-fried pancetta.
Seared foie gras with johnnycakes, cherry preserves and pecan crumble seems akin to a particularly rococo IHOP concoction, but is not without its breakfast-for-dinner charm.
A lobster cocktail brings a huge platter of undressed lettuce with good, if not hugely flavorful, lobster meat arranged on top. This dish needs a bit more wit to compete with the iconic pleasure of shrimp cocktail.
The so-called “chopped salad” is no such thing (a melange of diced and crumbled items, the whole greater than the sum of its parts). It’s, well, a salad. Lettuce, carrots, cucumbers and feta cheese arranged in a bowl and sporting a startling $12 price tag.
Then comes steak, and happiness ensues.
You have your choice of certified Angus beef rib-eye, New York strip or tenderloin on the wet-aged side. If you pony up the big bucks, you can sample that dry-aged New York strip, which clocks in at 12 flavor-packed ounces and comes from Master Purveyors of New York City, the same butcher that supplies Peter Luger Steak House. There is also a 24-ounce prime dry-aged bone-in rib-eye for $85. I want to try it, but a budget only takes you so far.
There’s the rub. You can eat very well here if you spend loads and forgive the so-so dishes that you can’t avoid. If you try that $25 portion of tenderloin, you will find yourself saddened by dry, sour chunks of meat served with obnoxiously pungent truffle fries.
Beef short ribs in a bordelaise sauce taste and shred a bit like diner pot roast. Not bad, but not $27 good. Cornmeal-crusted grouper arrives moist and gorgeously cooked, but its bed of bacon-studded bean salad provides more richness than fish-friendly flavor. You will hit your bacon wall here, which is not a place any of us wants to visit.
But occasional flashes of invention convince you this kitchen is one to watch. I’ve liked all the sides, from the creamiest and silkiest Yukon Gold potato puree to pan-roasted Brussels sprouts and cauliflower in a sweet-tangy preparation that would taste at home in a Thai restaurant. The signature bone marrow bread pudding, crisp on the surface and impossibly rich through its custard heart, makes for a fun curio.
The wine list makes room for some lower-alcohol and terroir-driven reds along with the concentrated and heavily oaked ones that people love with red meat. Oak Steakhouse is the kind of place where a nice enough glass of wine will set you back $15. Add in $10 for those vegetables and $72 for that steak and, well, you get the point. Proceed without caution, and you might just have a great meal.