Thursday, March 20, 2014

First Thoughts On White Oak Tavern: Some Real Success And Warmer Seasons On The Way

White Oak's burger, fries and housemade ketchup
To: Richard Gorelick, Baltimore Sun
Date: March 20, 2014

We had a fun night at White Oak Tavern, but we hope that you'll let them get a few more months under their belts before you visit.

White Oak is new Ellicott City restaurant that aims to celebrate local farms, seasonal food, and craft beers.  It's a friendly place, newly-renovated with wood and stone and newly-joined into the "farm to table" trend.  It's a smart place with real ambition.

There's nothing better than meeting a restaurant that wants to show off its wares.  I read the beer list, and I couldn't pick between two.  The waitress went straight to offering tastes of both.  Two tastes.  Both excellent beer.  Both described perfectly.  And one was just wrong.  I clearly don't like beers with "caramel."  I ended up with a hoppy, bitter IPA that absolutely made my meal.

The fun parts of our meal were corn bread, a burger and a great dessert.  The menu has small plates and entrees.  They're trying for seasonal food.  They're trying for local farms.  They're trying to be unique.  The corn bread comes in a dense, moist wedge sparked up by a thin layer of melted cheese.  The burger comes with house-made ketchup, a tangy sauce, and Atwater's brioche roll that made it stand out.

"Cookies and Cream"
All those make White Oak a definite place to check out -- especially if you want to try 30 taps of craft beers with good food to go along.  Folks are guaranteed wings, burgers and hearty fare that's a thoughtful step above most places.  They should seek out the kitchen's special effort -- like extra sauce on that burger.  We just want you and your Sun colleagues to hold off a few months so that White Oak can work out what it means when the waitress says "farm to table" and the menu has entrees in the 20s.

Mid-winter is never a fair time to judge a seasonal restaurant, especially one that wants to thrive on Maryland produce.  On the winter menu, the only vegetables on the small plate menu were deep-fried mushrooms, so the farm product that drew us in was a beet salad that turned out to be a mistake.  Cubed beets.  Slivered fennel.  Huge chunks of soft onion.  Oranges and goat cheese, all with a cup of quinoa dumped alongside.

My fear is that a real restaurant reviewer would stop in his tracks.  Nothing held the salad together.  The flavor was flat and bland.  The fennel was too small to crunch.  The onion so big that it felt sad.  I want to see more quinoa in the world, but the next menu will hopefully edit that salad.  My hope is that spring and summer will bring vegetables so delicious that White Oak can really put them front and center.  Maybe the vegetables listed as "ala carte" are special enough be like small plates that we have had Pure Wine Cafe or Woodberry Kitchen.  We realized afterwards that we might have enjoyed kale or broccolini.

It takes ambition to be something special, and it takes time to work that ambition into meals like Woodberry and 8407 Kitchen Bar where this "farm to table" trend makes drama from simple ingredients.  While we're waiting, I'm going back to White Oak for more dessert.  We had a "Cookies and Cream."  That's vanilla ice cream served with dark gingerbread cookies.  Ice cream from South Mountain Creamery in Middletown.  Cookies made with real ingredients that leave threads of ginger and a deep, intense flavor.

We both agreed that White Oak's cookies ranked up with Le Comptoir, which makes many of the best desserts around.  If anything, we'd want them notched into the ice cream so we could pick them up for dipping -- rather than lined with chocolate sauce and put under the ice cream.

White Oak is a cool place, and it's definitely worth seeking out on Rte 40.  I want success for this round of new restaurants that want to be special enough to draw diners from across the county and reviewers from Baltimore -- White Oak, Gadsby's Bar American, the Highland Inn, and Petit Louis.  I want to give them time to do all that work.

Could someone explain the allure of beer lists on televisions?  Kloby's Smokehouse has them.  White Oak has two in the dining room.  I don't have young eyes anymore, but I can't read them across the room.  Even when I can, it is just a name.  White Oak had a terrific two-page beer list with a paragraph on each beer.  The descriptions helped me pick -- and made me want to order more.


Adam said...

"They're trying for seasonal food. They're trying for local farms. They're trying to be unique"

My first thought when reading this (and really, my enduring thought after writing the proceeding) is, well, who isn't? These days, EVERYONE who has a restaurant markets "fresh" "sustainable" "organic" "seasonal" and blah blah blah. I am not saying those things aren't what restaurants should shoot for, but calling it unique borders on an oxymoran. Worse yet, it can sometimes have such a placebo effect. “Well, you know this is a local bun so I am doing great by the world for overpaying for this sandwich. Hmmm, it might just be the best sandwich ever.”

You know what, that burger looks great. But is it really worth the price (I personally do not subscribe to the idea that grass-aged beef tastes better. No matter what you want to claim, it doesn’t)? And Atwater schmatwater. If I want a burger bun I want a Martin’s Potato Roll, and I never want to see arugula
on a burger (or pizza, for that matter). I find places like this are more trying to build up the allure of being cutting edge and offering their customers a luxury item—that being their sourced ingredients—which may or may not be better than someone else’s ingredients. But they’ll never tell you that.

It all goes back to the idea that some restaurants (I’d argue many) have subscribed to the theory that as long as you have the “best” (whatever that means) ingredients, the rest magically falls into place.

That said, I’m happy to see your review here, and if and when I try this place I will keep in open mind. I could be totally wrong, but there has just been something about the marketing of the whole place that’s just struck me as trying too hard.

Jack said...

I wish you had tried the main courses - beef brisket, hanger steak, or chicken paprikash - instead of the bar food that is pretty standard. I found the taste and quality of ingredients fine but portion size for price was ridiculous. I won't pay 20+ dollars for a small plate (posing as an entree) of food that I can make at home. I agree with Adam that value is not there. This is a neighborhood BAR not Iron Bridge or Bistro Blanc. Frankly when I am going out to drink beer I can care less about 'organic' or 'grass-fed' -- e.g., The Judge's Bench in Ellicott City has terrible food but is a great beer bar.

Jessie Newburn said...

I had the catfish dinner special the other day, and it was delicious. Beautiful, tasty and quite enjoyable. I also had a waiter give me the perfect beer based on what I described that I liked.

In the last month I hosted a HoCoBlogs party there, as well, with a good 90 or so people in attendance. The staff was attentive, responsive and pleasant, and the management was also easy to work with.

All restaurants need some time to get their groove on, to change the energy of a place and make it their own, to set the vibe with people, food, staff. I believe WOT is on track to become a foundational go-to place in Howard County.

Trip Klaus said...

Like Mr HowChow I have been saving my final opinion for a while. However, my initial reaction is negative. As others have said, the place is oddly priced, in that it isn't a value pub and it isn't a special occasion restaurant but it's priced more like one. I really don't like the Saturday brunch only program and have watched at least a dozen tables leave when they see that menu. The food has been fine but not exciting enough to drive me there. I'm also annoyed that every time I have visited at least one kitchen, floor or management member has been eating at the bar. This has been several weekday HH and weekend lunch. The bar itself is deceptively small , it takes only about 15 people to be full. I have heard bartenders answer customers beer questions completely wrong, which if you wish to compete with the many great beer pubs in Howard County is inexcusable. I also have a hard time with the tv screen beer list and haven't been offered the desciptive menu only a simple list of beers which at least is easy to read.

All in all, I hope that these issues can be worked out, and the food can improve to justify the expense.

Piper said...

I went a few weeks ago... Had the hanger steak and thought it was the best steak ever! Nice crust and cooked just as I requested. Generous portion of mashed potatoes. It was expensive, but they have enough range of affordable to pricey that I'm okay with it. I love the concept of this place, trendy or not, it is nice to have a thoughtful menu with local ingredients in a casual atmosphere where I could even bring my kids if I wanted to. I will admit the interior, at least on the restaurant side where I was, lacks some authenticity or something... That makes me agree with some of the "trying too hard" comments. Waitstaff was helpful and attentive to our table.

HowChow said...

@TripKlaus -- I definitely recommend the beer list. It was a two-sided printout. Sometimes those beer descriptions can just be vague or aimed at the "in crowd" who knows the lingo. I felt like White Oak's explained the drinks pretty wel.

anthonydpaul said...

We went in their soft opening and expected it to be rocky, but I agree the price was the biggest pitfall. Don't get me wrong, we like to splurge on pricy restaurants, but they have to be special. They were also missing some key items.

1. A side of sauteed spinach for $5? Shannon's is less and has garlic in it.

2. I tried the small plate with the peppercorn sausage and kraut. Generally, it was flavorless and they let me know they didn't have any type of mustard in the restaurant (yellow, brown, spicy, honey...). No flavor, n mustard to fix it, and $12.

3. The winter squash soup was presented as "vegan" (I asked) and while the soup itself did appear to be vegan, it clearly had a sour cream fraiche drizzled over it.

I agree with you that it has potential. The restaurant will hopefully hit a stride as it responds to the local market and it has the makings of a great restaurant. However, I'll do the same and give it 6 months or more before I give it a second chance.

Trip Klaus said...

Sadly, the ABC2 report where the owners blamed customers for not understanding their concept and calling Howard County behind the times is not going to encourage me to support them. I visited again today and all the issues I've had from the beginning remain, with the exception of a wonderful bartender and the corrected beer list.

Anonymous said...

We had been intending to come to White Oak for months but never got around to it, partly because I've become adverse to going to a restaurant where I can't make a reservation on Open Table or similar ap. On the spur of the moment we took our daughter and her friend out on a Saturday night. they are back from college and over 21 and we wanted something nice.
We called only an hour and a half in advance and got out choice of indoor, outdoor or bar area, we chose the main dining room. At 7:30 on a Saturday they were busy but not near full, walk-ins would have been seated immediately, not a regular HoCo occurance at nice places.

The beer listed was very good, with lots of local crafts beers, I got to taste Flying Dog's Ginger Beer, which is so. New it's not eve listed on Beer Advocates website. I did order it and will do it again The girls drank cocktails off the specialty drink menu, thet were well made and served in mason jars.
The cheese plate was great, local goat cheese was especially good, and enough for 4 to share. The wings were really very good, honey and spicy, a favorite combination. The brisket, the hanger steak and ham and cheese sandwich ( got to have next time) were also really good. They were out of 2 daily specials by 7:30 on a Saturday night and one them was the seafood special. That was disappointing. There was duck and beef and vegetarian options but no other fish or chicken on the menu. What they do offer is well made and quality,
I would come here for dessert only if that's all they served. Homemade ice creams!!. One dessert we didn't have was made with lavender ice cream. When choosing between the lavender ice cream and a daily special, the waitress, excellent job, recommended the special since we can have the regular item any time. But great service is giving the customer more than they asked for, so in addition to the desserts we ordered, she brought some lavender ice cream and 4 spoons.well done.
As we were leaving the live music was beginning, don't know who they were on May 31 but they were excellent.
OMG White Oak is definitely not Jillys, so much better and you won't recognize the inside, good looking place, casual but saloon classy. Lots of bar area to drink and socialize and seperate from the main dining room so it's not overly loud
This is definitely a place I'll come back to and if you went soon after it opened, try in again.