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.
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.
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:
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.
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).