First Foray to Oak at Fourteenth

Hot new Boulder restaurant has good genes but still some kinks to be ironed out 

A few Mondays ago, my husband and I headed to the then-quite-new Oak at Fourteenth (or OAK at Fourteenth, as they write it), but it was closed for a private party. I finally got there for lunch this week with three gal-pals. In the meantime, I’ve personally known or heard about several people who fell head over heels for it and have already been there two or three or more times. It’s always that way with someplace very new and very cool, but those latest-and-greatest enthusiasts often have short attention spans. A few have already shifted their focus to The Pinyon, an even newer (one week old today) Boulder restaurant. Sic transit loyalty. 

 From the old 14th Street Grill, it inherited a wonderful location, pleasantly sized space, big windows facing 14th Street that bring in the light but not too much foot traffic and a small patio seating area. Oak’s own changes are a reutilization of the open kitchen and the talents of creative team, Steven Redzikowski captaining the kitchen and Bryan Dayton helming the bar. Dayton is known as one of the best mixologists around, and it seems that much of the lunch crowd had no hesitation to imbibe in his creations. If I had, it might have taken the edge off my observations and I would most likely have slept all afternoon. 

There’s a lot to like about Oak, and once it completely finds its footing, I have no doubt that this good place will become even better. Partners Dayton, Redzikowski and GM Annie Polk have immaculate credentials, so  expectations were sky-high and the buzz deafening even before the doors were open. Perfection is a great challenge for a brand new place. 

A counter with a few stools at the open kitchen are there for diners who like to watch the process.

The food has some innovative twists and the wine list is imposing, but overall, the  lofty expectations and relentless local foodie buzz still present a dilemma. While Oak is mostly very good, excessive anticipation magnifies even small flaws. The waitstaff is still a bit under-trained. During our first 15 minutes, there were at at least  four loud flatware fumbles when someone dropped forks and/or spoons and/or knives on the wood floor while setting or clearing a table. At least there were no glassware or crockery crashes. 

The lunch and dinner menus list dishes either as “shared plates” and “large plates,” but these categories seemed somewhat random to a quartet of writers and editors like us. The mac and cheese, for instance, is listed as a “shared plate,” while the soup and salads are among the “large plates.” The four of us were given two different lunch menus, and of course, the grilled toast with wild mushrooms that we wanted as a starter turned out to be no longer available. 

Cube of soft, sweet butter with a sprinkle of salt.

The oddball bread service seems both chintzy and wasteful. One piece of very good bread is placed on each bread plate, and a cube of perfectly soft and spreadable butter sprinkled with a bit of salt (left) is placed in the middle of the table. However, once a slice of bread is finished, no one offers a second slice and worse, someone swoops over and removes the plate. And the partly used butter is whisked away too. A request for another piece of bread therefore means not only soiling one more plate, but delivering a fresh cube of butter. 

The cheese-avoider among us spotted a salad on the menu that listed the key ingredients, except for the cheese. She’s too nice to have sent it back, but she spent a good part of the lunch picking cheese out of the greenery. In a place like Boulder with more than the usual percentage of vegans, the omission was surprising. 

Lunch — at Last 

Now that you’ve read about matters that would be minor in a new restaurant had there not been so much spin about this one,  here’s what we had for lunch: 

Braised calamari and rigatoni with citrus crumbs, which we were told might disappear from the menu. Salad of sliced pears and Treviso salad with Midnight Moon cheese and pickled onion. Treviso is a kind of arugula and Midnight Moon is a California goat cheese.
A soup plate holding a house-made cinnamon-spiced marshmallow comes to the table....
...to await a pour of lovely Munson Farms butternut squash soup.
Deep bowl partly filled with turbinado sugar came with a teensy salt spoon.
How teensy was the salt spoon? Here it is, in front of a regulation teaspoon.

When it came to coffee and dessert, the service got weird again. We ordered two coffees and one tea. We had a choice of medium or dark roasts, which is wonderful. The tea didn’t come and didn’t come, and when the tea-drinker asked to cancel the order, a server apologized, brought a fine selection of teas and did not charge for them. That wasn’t the weird part though. The sugar bowl came with large-crystal turbinado sugar — and dinky little salt spoon. No white sugar or sugar substitute was even offered. 

Of course, we decided to share a dessert, and of course, this took much deliberation. We settled on a espresso mousse topped with a layer of dark chocolate and a unbuttered, unsalted popcorn. I’m afraid I was the only one who liked it. I’ve had popcorn as condiment with ceviche, soups and other foods in Ecuador, and I kind of like that mild crunch contrast to soft foods. One of my friends dug under the popcorn to reach the sweet stuff, and another who “thought” the dark chocolate would be “different” ate very little. 

Glass of popcorn-topped espresso mousse shows kitchen's creativity, but it seemed to creative for some.

When all was said, done and devoured, I found Oak at Fourteenth full of promise that would already been kept if the opening profile had been lower and word-of-mouth had gone along with ironing out early snags. At the end of lunch, we shared out observations with Annie Polk, who I think genuinely was interested in the feedback. While Oak’s lunch prices are a few dollars higher than at most downtown Boulder restaurants, the house was full of happy eaters who seemed content to be paying off the renovation as well as paying for the innovation. And I certainly have no issue with that seal of approval. 

Price Check: At lunch, there’s a bit of price overlap between the ‘shared plates” ($5-$13, with most $8-$10) and “large plates ($9-$15). 

OAK at Fourteenth on Urbanspoon

17 thoughts on “First Foray to Oak at Fourteenth”

  1. I agree, Claire. I loved my squash soup and the ambiance was pleasant, though the service (chaotic) and menu offerings (more veggie options and better descriptions, please) aren’t where they should be. (Cutting back on the salt would be good, too.) I’ll give Oak another try once its had time to work things out. I want it to succeed.

  2. Laughed out loud at your description that I “spent a good part of the lunch picking cheese out of the greenery” — hilarious! I will say that the salad was good, and anyone who likes cheese in their salad will love the combination. I’m going to be back to try the squash soup.

    Another friend who went there for happy hour was delighted by the wonderful organic red wine that the bartender recommended to her.

    1. I didn’t name names, Andrea, but I’m glad you chuckled. I’d go back for the squash soup and also some of the dinner items. From what I’ve been reading, dinner diners have raved but lunch eaters are less enthralled. I’m guessing that enjoying some of Bryan Dayton’s cocktails and/or some wine from that impressive list enhances the experience as well. Let us know when you’re planning to go back.

  3. Claire, a group of us ate dinner there over the weekend and we were very disappointed. The roasted bass was flavorless and came with about 2 sliced brussel sprouts and about 3 roasted grapes (the grapes were the only good part of this dish). It took forever to get our cocktails and forever to get coffee. We had a better experience with the bread, though, than you did. I found the menu limited, especially regarding veggie options. And the dessert (pineapple tart) sounded better than it actually was – the other dessert choices weren’t compelling at all. The restaurant was packed and noisy. They’ve got a lot of kinks to work out if they’re going to survive. I don’t think they will. Too bad.

  4. Claire, based on your review and the comments of others, I am not going to put Oak on my list of “must dos” any time soon. I’d rather spend that kind of money on a place where I can count on good service and splendid food without any disappointments. Maybe later — thanks for filling us in!

  5. Funny, SALT also had mishaps and strangenesses when it was new (cold chicken pot pies with no chicken in them for the omnivores at my table, for example, and no spoons for the coffee no matter how we begged the server) — but SALT seems now to be flourishing, so maybe the story is that eager restauranteers are a bit too eager and let the first customers train the wait staff…. I’ll wait for OAK to settle in.

  6. Ina, you’re correct about SALT, and that’s a good point. I don’t think it’s so much that they’re using the first customers for training, or rather, I think that’s the nature of almost any restaurant, there’s a natural learning curve even if the staff is experienced. I think the message here is that Boulder is such a budding foodie town that we’re so excited when a new, potentially “worthy” place opens, that we perhaps expect it to wow us out of the gate. That’s just not all that common, most places have hiccups along the way as they settle in. Oak and Salt and almost every other place just can’t meet that kind of consistent performance right after opening.

  7. I received a private E-mail from a reader who then gave me permission to post his message (for which I thank him) but prefers to remain anonymous:

    “I recently discovered your blog and truly enjoy it. Wish I had found it sooner…but we only moved to Boulder a little over a year ago.

    “Excuse me for emailing you, but I wanted to offer some observations about Oak, that I didn’t necessarily want to be a response to your blog. My wife & I recently went to Oak on a Friday night (and we typically never go out on a Friday, as service can be challenged, and restuarants can be noisy)

    “Prior to going I read almost every review I could find…and almost all were from December. So I was prepared to see if changes had occurred.

    “Our experience was that they have clearly made adjustments….We didn’t realize we were speaking to the GM (Ann?) but she indicated they had read reviews and felt
    a bit humbled. I give them a lot of credit for reading the reviews and making adjustments.

    “We had the opportunity to sit where we could watch the chefs, and see all the dishes going out. ( The two person tables are not very customer friendly) I am very impressed how quiet, efficient and well disciplined they were. I was also surprised at how many service staff they had…I am amazed that with the staffing level they can keep prices manageable.

    “Our only issue was the stuffed quail. The dish, as all we saw, was beautifully presented. The sweet potatoes were VG, braised cabbage a nice balance, quail was cooked properly,
    but the stuffing was mushy, pasty, and grey.

    “Even the fried pickles, which I had no interest in trying were VG. When I saw the dish it was so ingtriguing I had to try it.

    ” We don’t choose restaurants for their bar drinks, but found the Mediterranean Winter a delight…unfortunatley it goes down too easily. And their Manhattan, which is a drink I
    have tried way too many times around the US was well balanced. I typically eschew the maraschino cherry, but their alternative was a real cherry.”

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