Friday, May 9, 2014

The Oak Table Spring Menu Tasting

Don't you love it when you're just having a regular ol' day and then an invitation comes to you and makes you think, "Wow, I'm one lucky lady"? This happened to me a few days ago.  Some of my fellow food blogger friends and I were invited to The Oak Table to taste their new Spring menu.  I haven't made it to The Oak Table yet, so I was delighted to accept the invitation.  And it's true...I was lucky indeed.

The Oak Table changes its menu seasonally.  They have made a commitment to featuring as many local ingredients as possible in their offerings.  The result is an exciting, refreshing and interesting menu for the season. We were hosted by the lovely Vanessa Driscoll, owner of the Farm to Table Event Company and the General Manager of The Oak Table, Nathan Moody.  What I thought would be a couple hours turned into four hours of delicious sampling and fun with friends who love food as much as I do, on a perfect evening (we were on the patio).

So, let's just break right into it, shall we?  First, we were served one of the new cocktails called the "spring thyme."  This is a remarkably refreshing concoction of cucumber vodka, thyme, mint, ginger vodka and Cannonborough honey basil soda on top. It conjured up a fond memory of Hendrick's gin, which I kind of forgot about, but was even more "herby" and crisp.  

Next, we were brought two salads: the "spring carrot salad", which featured artisan carrots and the "cured local fish salad".  I know that sounds kind of funny, but it's no laughing matter.  This was a mix of frisee and arugula with thin sliced cured salmon draped over and studded with shaved fennel and almonds, all dressed with a lemongrass vinaigrette.  I loved this one!  The carrot salad featured artisan carrots, like I mentioned, sugar snap peas, shaved Pecorino, pistachios and was dressed with a sweet pea vinaigrette. This was a very light salad which is perfect for spring.  Out of the two, the salad with salmon was my favorite.

Spring Carrot Salad
Cured Local Fish Salad

About the time we were finishing up with these lovely salads, the "strawberry harvest" arrived. I must admit that I'm not much of a strawberry fan except this time of year when they are in season. This cocktail consists of local Cottle Farms berries, Bee Trail Farms honey, mint, vodka and the Cannonborough honey basil soda.  It was simply delicious!  I could sip on these all afternoon.  The combination of ingredients is perfect and the flavor is exactly what you look for in a refreshing spring-time drink.  Bravo on this one, for sure!

Strawberry Harvest.  As beautiful as it tastes.
 You're feeling really jealous about now, aren't you?  Next, we were treated to a couple of the appetizers.   First was the "braised rabbit ravioli", which my buddy April aptly renamed "rabbioli." It is a large, pasta pillow amply stuffed with shredded rabbit (imagine how pot roast shreds) placed atop a yummy carrot-ginger puree and finished off with some arugula and pistachios.  This was a big hit with everyone at the table.

Braised Rabbit Ravioli
 Then came one of my favorites of the evening: the "black pepper ricotta gnudi". It was served in an amazingly delicious broth with littleneck clams, broccoli rabe, oyster mushrooms and aleppo pepper. The gnudi was full of fresh pepper flavor but that broth,  OMG. At April's suggestion, we all picked up our bowls and drank the rest.  Sorry Oak Table, we just couldn't resist.  Had we been in the dining room I'm sure this would have been frowned upon! Luckily, we had the patio to ourselves.

I mean, look at it.  It just looks like a dream!
 At this point, my head was spinning from all the fantastic food, so I may mix up the order of the next dishes we tasted.  But I'm sure it's all the same to you. Out came the "Niman Ranch pork chop". This was definitely one of my favorites of the night.  The pork was perfectly cooked.  P.e.r.f.e.c.t.l.y. Juicy and tender and then accompanied by the most wonderfully crispy sweet potatoes and spicy mustard greens.  Frankly, just the fact that one of our restaurants is using mustard greens makes me happy.  Of all the greens, mustard is probably the least famous.  But they shouldn't be.

Wish my color was better because this was a beautiful plate
 Between samples, I was reading the menu and asked Jonathan (he writes and photographs for Free Times) what in the world is "wreckfish."  He knew.  So, he enlightened me and said it's one of his favorites fishes.  Well, lo and behold, our next course was the "pan-seared wreckfish".  Jonathan knew what he was talking about.  This is a meaty fish like grouper.  It was served with a green gazpacho, white asparagus and romesco.  I have a new favorite fish it would seem.

Pan-Seared Wreckfish
 You are probably getting full just reading and seeing these pix, right?  So how about getting your head around some "grilled Angus hanger steak"?  Once again, this is served with a cool assortment of veggies: asparagus, shiitakes, grilled spring onion.  You'll notice a smear on the plate.  This was pureed Japanese sweet potato.  I've never encountered this vegetable before.  It was very faintly sweet and silky smooth.  All of this was accompanied by Bordelaise sauce.

Beautiful Hanger Steak
 And just when we thought surely dessert was coming, we were surprised by a serving of "grilled local swordfish"!  The fish was nicely grilled and served with a "rustic" ratatouille and tomato oil.  I'm not sure what makes it rustic, but I do know that as a HATER of classic French ratatouille, I can say this is different and much, much better. 

Grilled local swordfish with ratatouille
 So, somewhere in the midst of all this heavenly food, another signature cocktail arrived.  This one is called the "Legend of the Fall".  It's composed of Jack Daniels Tennessee honey, cinnamon apple cider, lemon juice, walnut liqueur and comes with a smoked cinnamon sugar rim.  To me, this was like apple pie in a glass.  Very tasty, but since I'm not a huge sweet freak, I couldn't drink more than one of these.  After dinner, we all discussed & gave our critique and the consensus was that this is delicious but would probably be a more popular choice in the fall. 

Legend of the Fall.  Neither Brad Pitt nor Anthony Hopkins showed up.
 As we all wondered how much weight we'd just put on, dessert arrived.  We were served two:  Blini with strawberries and pineapple carrot cake. The cake was by far my favorite.  It was a small cake topped with a slice of grilled pineapple.  That was then topped with a small scoop of banana ice cream.  A "streusel" of nuts and chocolate were sprinkled over the top. Again, not being a big sweet eater, I usually don't order dessert.  I'd order this again and again. 

Big things come in small packages
 The blini with strawberries was quite interesting, but alas, not a hit with me.  It was served with lemon curd, which was very good, some mildly sweet whipped cream and strawberries.  However, the strawberries had been smoked.  This is certainly a new one for me.  I never would have ever thought to smoke a strawberry.  I now know that I don't care for smoked strawberries.  But, there were some at the table who enjoyed it, so it's not a fail.  Just wasn't my cup of tea.  This is the only negative I have about the entire evening.

Smoked Strawberry Blini

The Oak Table's current menu is exciting and different and is packed to the gills with local foods.  The local food scene in Columbia has grown by leaps and bounds and it's so encouraging to see so much of it showing up on our menus.  I can't thank Vanessa, Nathan and Chef Howard enough for inviting me (us) to come sample all this delicious fare.  It was a very pleasant evening filled with flavorful treats with other food lovers.  And as you can probably guess, we all burned up our batteries taking pictures of our food.  Yep, we're those people you see in restaurants pointing our iPhones at our plates.  Yep, that's us.

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