We, the American dining public, have been bombarded as of late with ‘news’ about sustainability, the locavore movement, organic foods and the like. Individually and collectively, these great buzzwords tend to compel people to take notice and, because of their impact, we are perhaps being more selective and particular not only about the food that goes into our body but also about where that food comes from.
While we can reap the benefits of casting a discerning eye towards the foodstuffs which we bring into our homes, more and more people are testing those values outside of their own kitchens as well. Some restaurants are taking notice.
Oak + Almond is one such restaurant. Artisan cured meats and cheeses, grass-fed beef, and seasonally and locally sourced produce helps to propagate the message of organic goodness. When Oak + Almond first opened its doors in the old Tuscan Oven space on Main Avenue in Norwalk in the spring of 2013, Chef Jeff Taibe was at the helm of the spacious, open kitchen. Now, Chef Holly Michaud has taken the lead and Oak + Almond continues its journey of handcrafted food.
The décor at Oak + Almond is a throwback to a more rustic time. The restaurant’s namesake, oak and almond hardwoods, are used to fuel the open hearth grill and oven, while the large communal table in the main dining room is crafted from oak floorboards that date back 100 years.
It’s takes more than mere aesthetics to make a restaurant successful, and Oak + Almond relies not only on good looks but also a menu ripe with freshness and unfussy fare. A recent Sunday brunch allowed for the exploration of quite a few of Oak + Almond’s dishes, revealing the highs and lows.
Diners kicking off the afternoon would be well served to try the Meat Board, which includes some imports as well as artisan cured meats from local purveyors (Craft Butchery [Westport, CT]; and LaFrieda [North Bergen, NJ]). The Artisan Cheese Board is another great selection and, served alongside the wonderful array of cheeses are fruit preserves and nuts.
While the Brioche French Toast possessed the right flavor profile, the mushy texture on the inside kept this dish from being a winner for my palate. On the other hand, the Buttermilk Pancakes were as good as any my grandmother made from scratch in her North Carolina kitchen. Both are served with maple syrup produced right here in Connecticut.
Several dishes are worthy of note on the brunch menu, including the Chitarra Carbonara. This modest dish—adorned with guanciale, pecorino, and black pepper topped with an intact egg yolk—is stunning in its simplicity and beauty. For those who may think that a tiny, quivering mass of yolk is not for them will rethink that conviction once the yolk is punctured and allowed to spill through the chitarra and mingle with the other flavors. Perhaps, even, you will develop a predilection for not-so-firm yolks.
Burger fans can take comfort in the knowledge that there is a Grass Fed Hamburger on the menu. You can travel all over this country and find a hamburger on more menus than you care to recount, but happen upon a burger at a place that isn’t a burger joint—you know, the kinds that specialize in a myriad of mind-boggling toppings for the shock value—and you expect greatness. The burger at Oak + Almond was good, however, there seemed to be a bit of a handicap when a well-done burger was requested. “Well done,” in the hands of a talented chef, should not be dry. Unfortunately, my burger was exceedingly so. In all fairness, however, this was full-flavored quality beef and, despite its dryness, constituted a half dozen wonderful bites. The real star, however, on this burger which was adorned with bacon and gorgonzola dolce, was the cipollini jam. Mere onions make a burger sing; cipollini jam makes that same burger do cartwheels in the mouth. I’ll take cartwheels over singing any day. When you order the burger, and I’m sure you will, be sure to ask for extra jam on the side. You’ll be glad you did.
Skittish but with an adventurous culinary streak? Pure excellence describes the Charred Octopus. Although not my favorite fare from the sea, Oak + Almond did a stand-up job with this dish. Lounging in a tiny lake of guajillo squid ink sauce, the octopus took up residence next to sliced potatoes, Andouille and celery and created a house of love. The meaty texture was a welcome treat to my palate, and the combined flavors comingled in near-perfect harmony.
The menu at Oak + Almond is intriguing enough to coax me back for more. Between brunch, lunch and dinner, there’s more than enough variety to sustain the interest of finicky diners. From Funghi Flatbread with charred green onions and fontina cheese drizzled with balsamic vinegar to firm and luscious Pork + Ricotta Meatballs in a spicy tomato sauce to Blue Lip Mussels and Fries, your taste buds won’t likely be bored.
SWEETS FOR THE SWEET TOOTH
Desserts at Oak + Almond are simple, providing a low-key end to the meal. The Chocolate Tart is a deep, deep chocolate treat that is sure to satisfy the chocoholic within. When served with the insanely creamy and fresh house spun gelato drizzled with olive oil (yes, olive oil), it may be difficult to restrain from oohing and aahing. Check the menu for additional sweets such as Milk Chocolate Panna Cotta or Cherry Chocolate Bread Pudding.
The cocktail list at Oak + Almond (otherwise known as the “drink book”) is filled with imaginatively coined drinks, and a favorite is the simply titled Oak + Almond. The list of ingredients may leave you scratching your head in wonder (four roses bourbon, Luxardo triplum, orgeat, lemon, smoked sea salt rim, Bittermens elemakule tiki bitters), but the taste will leave you licking your lips in satisfaction. On the flip side, unless you enjoy chewing your cocktails, steer clear of the Bloody Mary. There was a lot going on in the highball glass, not much of which appealed to my palate.
Other cocktails worthy of a sip or two are the Apple a Day, a refreshing concoction of La Pommiere Calvados (apple brandy), local maple syrup, fresh orange and lemon and a floating apple slice. Where There’s Smoke will add a bit of smokiness to your day. Islay Mist 8 year scotch, sherry, almond syrup, and lemon enhance this cocoa and cayenne powder topped drink that gives your mouth a tiny kick.
Oak + Almond also features an impressive list of organic wine, craft beer and other cocktails.
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Like many restaurants, Oak + Almond is consciously aware of the changing palates of the dining public. We demand fresh, palate-worthy cuisine that we can feel good about. For the most part, notwithstanding a few misses, Oak + Almond has landed on their mark. Time will tell if, in addition to their organic approach and fondness for seasonal ingredients, consistency will reign supreme.
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Oak + Almond
544 Main Avenue
Norwalk, CT 06851
Monday through Friday 11:00 am – 10:00 pm
Saturday 12:00 pm – 10:00 pm
Sunday 11:00 am 9:00 pm
DISCLOSURE: I have no material relationship to any brand(s) or person(s) mentioned in this article. The opinions expressed in this dining impressions article are my own. This was a complimentary promotional meal, and I received no further compensation from Oak + Almond, their representatives or any related entities.