Oak Steakhouse comes to the dining scene with two major advantages: a prime corner location in Alexandria, where the competition is sparse, and an owner who believes in giving his hires — in this case Joseph Conrad, a former executive chef at Bourbon Steak — free rein.
“Joseph is a chef, not a kitchen manager,” says Steve Palmer, managing partner of Indigo Road Restaurant Group, the hospitality company based in Charleston, S.C., that recently opened its sixth steakhouse, this one in Old Town. “I have no influence over the menu other than pricing,” says the restaurateur, whose empire includes the Japanese O-Ku near Union Market.
Just as each Oak Steakhouse is allowed to create its own menu around the star attraction — certified Angus beef — no two restaurants look alike. The original, in Charleston, occupies an 1850s bank building; the largest, in Nashville, is staged in a hotel. The newest steakhouse incorporates overhead beams, reclaimed Virginia wood and abundant brick for a pleasing effect. A wood-enclosed room in back includes a view of the exhibition kitchen and glass globes that look like big illuminated bubbles.
Any dinner is better when it starts with yeasty Parker House rolls, four to an order and served with cultured butter hit with rosemary-lavender-lemon sea salt. And August in the swamp is easier to tolerate while clutching a pale green drink (Sweet Releaf) that introduces cucumber, elderflower and mint to vodka.
Servers in blue shirts and red suspenders crisscross the restaurant, ferrying food at an angle that allows guests a preview of Conrad’s arrangements. True of a lot of kitchens, this one lavishes the most creativity on first courses, familiar as some may be. Our old friend octopus, seasoned with smoked paprika and crisped on the grill, is presented with zesty merguez made on-site, smoked eggplant puree and a comet tail of green harissa. Don’t everybody dive at once. A sublime salute to summer, corn agnolotti is enriched with smoked butter and picks up crunch from corn nuts fired up with ancho chile. Baby kale, painted with a garlic-punched Caesar dressing, crackles thanks to a scattering of garlic “streusel.” You may be tired of the hearty green, but my affection for kale has yet to wane.
Brussels sprouts, on the other hand? I’m kind of done with them, unless they’re an improvement on the same old. Here, the miniature green cabbages (and compressed apples) are bound with a cloying apple-soy caramel that tastes more like a tryout than a well-rehearsed performance. Undercooked pasta shells in a one-note drape of white cheddar cheese make me regret ordering the side dish. Conrad’s signature spud — baked, sliced into six rounds, fried, rearranged on a plate and loaded with bacon, cheese and scallions — sounds better. Next time!
Meat — mostly beef, some of it dry-aged, but also veal and pork — dominates the main-course selections, and I can vouch for both the 14-ounce New York strip steak and the bone-in rib-eye, 22 ounces of tender, nicely beefy and marbled meat. I like everything about a plate of rockfish — cauliflower in three colors, Moroccan-inspired chermoula — except the centerpiece, seared so that a knife could barely pierce its skin and sadly dry in parts.
I’m always of two minds about desserts in steakhouses. I can continue to splurge, and order something rich, or go the mindful route and seek out refreshment. Peanut butter calls to me like Twitter does to Trump, so I opt for decadence: creamy peanut butter semifreddo rolled in peanut brittle and served with whipped cream and salted caramel sauce is bliss in every bite.
Washington doesn’t need another steakhouse. Alexandria does, and Oak Steakhouse is more or less filling the need with the help of an outside player.
901 N. Saint Asaph St., Alexandria. 703-840-3395. oakalexandria.com. Entrees, $16 to $110 (for dry-aged prime porterhouse for two).