Oak Wine Bar & Café 361 Graham Ave, Williamsburg, 718- 387-1245 Price range: $22-$38
My favorite kind of restaurant is a small, cozy one. Where the vibe is communal, the music’s just right, the lighting’s low, the staff’s on a first-name basis. Where the beer is cold and hard to pronounce, and a postage-stamp kitchen turns out magic with a small, inventive menu. Oak Wine Bar and Café is almost this place — except replace magic with dreck.
I feel bad even typing those words. What if I ordered wrong? What if it was an off night? Who am I to judge? Well, that’s my job.
Both myself and my dining companion felt certain this would be one of those transcendent meals, a restaurant where we would actually return even if we didn’t have to, as I quaffed a phenomenal $6 Belgian mustard ale and she downed a half liter of German wheat beer ($8). But that fantasy dissolved when our appetizers came out. A Queso Fundido (Mexican fondue, $8) was a rubbery mess. The oil had long since separated from the singed puck of cheese, which needed to be hacked apart instead of scooped out with slices of supermarket French bread. Spanish chorizo with chickpeas and sherry ($7) was lifeless, as even the strong flavors of spicy sausage and booze were somehow leeched into the ether.
Main courses only brought more trouble. Drunken Baby Ribs ($15), not baby back ribs, was the best savory dish of the night, tasting like a sweet pork chop. But being made in 25 minutes (the chef had to start a new batch when we ordered, we were told) rendered the ribs chewy, with a snap akin to a Slim Jim (though they did fulfill a sort of caveman urge). Spinach Gnocchi ($13) was simply appalling. This delicate dumpling is easy to wreck, but these were worse than wedding buffet gnocchi — little emerald balls of Elmer’s cloaked in a mystifying gritty walnut cream sauce.
Seeing our displeasure — or our still-laden plates — the kitchen sent over a traditional flan, gratis, apparently a staff member’s specialty. And it was the best dish of the night. Made from condensed milk, it was thick and creamy with just the perfect bitter note of singed sugar. Of course, it made no sense on the over-wrought, over-long New American menu, but it made my night.
At Oak Café, I felt like I was the victim of some elaborate practical joke. It was packed, the service was informal and refreshing, the mood was romantic yet fun, with a lively bar and smiling faces. But the food was institutional. Not college cafeteria institutional… Prison.