Chocolate mousse and graham cracker ice cream. | All photos by Steve Coomes

Spoiler alert: If you’re wondering what happened to The Oakroom amid its three-month summer hiatus and mostly secret makeover, the answer is not much—at least that’s immediately recognizable.

Occasional visitors like me will still be taken aback just walking into the historic dining room; it’s always a breathtaking space. As before, it’s as stately as Batman’s Wayne Manor and as acoustically soothing as a funeral parlor.

Several tables were removed from the dining room to make room for a small cocktail lounge. | All photos by Steve Coomes
Several tables were removed from the dining room to make room for a small cocktail lounge.

The carved wood columns and substantial wood paneling remain, as do its elegant old school, roomy dining chairs. No switching out of the ancient for the trendy, or ponderous for perky. It is and remains, as a friend said to me this morning, “Arguably the most beautiful dining room in town.”

But as you relax and look around at the space, the subtler changes emerge: large flower arrangements—long a requirement for a AAA 5 Diamond distinction—are gone and replaced by globes with a single flower bud floating on water. A small bar has been moved to the front of the dining room for cocktail making, while several tables nearby were taken away and replaced with cozy high-back chairs, loveseats and cocktail tables positioned as if formed for a discussion circle. The reconfiguration looks like an old-time hotel lobby, where some guests would dine while others sipped drinks, and where the background clatter of a bartender at work would add energy to the room.

Perfectly tender charred octopus.
Perfectly tender charred octopus.

“That’s what they were after,” said chef de cuisine Nick Sullivan. “They goal was to make the room more relaxed, a place where you could walk in, get a drink and some small plates, or have the full dining experience if you liked. It gives people a choice.”

My wife and I visited (as guests of the restaurant) last Friday, for a soft-opening run that saw just a handful of tables occupied. The room was quiet, of course, but I imagined for a bit what it would be like with the liveliness of a cocktail crowd on one side, the new chef’s table full with eight guests, happy noise emanating from a well-lubricated private party in the Capone Room, and the clatter of plates and glasses being delivered to and taken from dining tables at the center.

It could work. And it should work.

Silver carp sashimi, straight from Kentucky waters.
Silver carp sashimi, straight from Kentucky waters.

Starting with a good dose of marketing and a selling proposition convincing enough to get local customers 1. downtown, 2. willing to part with some green for an elevated experience, and 3. believing that it’s not nearly as formal a restaurant as it used to be—even though it looks that way.

(But let’s be fair: It’s practically impossible for such décor not to look sophisticated when “industrial” and “steam punk” themes still influence the looks of modern restaurants’ innards.)

For me, trumpeting the “Hey, we’re not what we used to be” message starts by talking up Sullivan’s extraordinary food. After a six-year stay at 610 Magnolia, where he was chef de cuisine, he came to The Oakroom in April, only to be furloughed from July through September. Clearly, the time off didn’t harm his skills.

The chef's table, just beyond the kitchen door.
The chef’s table, just beyond the kitchen door.

His menu features just two pages: eight small plates choices ($10-$21) on the left; seven “Mains” choices ($31-$52) on the right. (A separate and limited dessert menu is presented at meal’s end.) A diner could easily stick to the small plates side, eat amazingly well and for not a ton of money. The $13 charred octopus tentacle was a perfect example: served with Israeli couscous, harissa, chimichurri and piquillo pepper, it was spicy, savory, explosively flavorful and unimaginably tender. A lighter, but no less outstanding dish was the Kentucky silver carp sashimi ($10) with red Fresno chiles, cilantro and yuzu vinaigrette. For $10, I’d have eaten two.

The seared foie gras ($21) with smoked barley, red curry gastrique and memo chive was too enticing to overlook. It was tangy and rich and delivered a delightfully sneaky sting. The big surprise in the bison tartare ($15) wasn’t the braised mustard seeds and pastrami spice interlarded with the minced meat. Rather it was the freaky-fun twist of Dijon ice cream tucked below the nest of frissée covering the whole.

Seared foie gras.
Seared foie gras.

We coulda-shoulda been done, and woulda been done were we on our own dime, but Sullivan didn’t let up. Out came miso-glazed cobia ($36) in a blistered tomato emulsion and garnished with lotus root chips, as well as a delicate wild mushroom ravioli ($31) served in a cool weather-rich sauce of butternut squash and dollops of fromage blanc. Of course, both were exquisite, yet also more expensive than the four small plates ($67 for mains vs. $59 for smalls). And given that I like to graze, I’ll go all smalls on a return trip.

Dessert was forced on us, too, by Troy Westrick, a veteran Oakroom server from the days when Adam Seger was general manager and Jim Gerhardt was executive chef. (In case you’ve not had a good service experience lately, let the likes of Westrick or Cesar Perez [Corbett’s] or Jonathan Tarullo [Volare] remind you what it’s like to be guided through a meal. Just refuse your menu and say, “Go!”) He brought us a single plate of dark chocolate mousse, bourbon-vanilla marshmallow, fresh honey comb, smoked fluid gel and graham cracker ice cream garnished with French marigolds ($11). Such whimsy and precision reminded me why I smartly ended my chef career after eight years.

Wild mushrooms, butternut squash and sage.
Wild mushrooms, butternut squash and sage.

Sullivan and manager Liz Carson also have created cocktail pairings for most plates, a treat in which we didn’t indulge that night, but will on a return trip. Such pairings are happening in larger restaurant markets, and the trend is worth watching as bartenders figure out how to batch paired drinks smartly and economically. In the meantime, I recommend getting a firsthand look by visiting The Oakroom for yourself.

The restaurant is open Tuesday through Saturday, 6-10 p.m. Call 502-807-3463 to make a reservation or just walk in. You don’t even have to dress up anymore. Smart casual is just fine.