In a previous life I worked at a nursery in North Carolina. That last sentence will give most readers pause as your perception of me is probably that of a tan Shrek who lusts for the blood of children. Rest assured, this was a nursery for plants – not babies.
Our crew had 5 “people” from their early 20s to mid-40s. Three functional alcoholics, one “musician” with a crippling pill addiction, and me. I was friends with our boss and was chastised for being the golden boy, mainly because I was the only one without a DUI. This isn’t commentary on my level of responsibility, just my age. I’d had my first legal beer earlier that year and had not yet been fully exposed to the burden of freedom or made the shitty decisions that circumstances allow you to make on the early arc of adulthood.
It wasn’t a matter of if I would wind up like them, just a matter of when I would end up like them. I wasn’t particularly good at anything at this point in my life, mainly because I didn’t aspire to be anything other than the highest man on Earth. Even the most elementary of tasks, like making sure dirt gets wet, was like trying to untie the Gordian Knot. The loss of plant life during the spring of 2007 to the summer of 2008 could be measured with geography, like how every year the rain forests shrink by the size of Kansas, or something like that.
Like a Stanford Prison Experiment for shirking personal responsibility, my observations of this sage and totally not-destructive peer group helped me come to the realization that time is an incredibly powerful force, one that can be destructive if you are too complacent.
I incrementally got my shit together (humble brag) and started my career, moved back to my beloved New Jersey to take a job in NYC, and started a sub-optimal blog that is occasionally read by people with seemingly nothing better to do. All of this spurred on by the feeling that the current state of play is not eternal, things will inevitably change for better and worse, and that it’s up to you to bend it to your will and make your own path.
It’s not just the recognition of time that is imperative; it’s what you do with it. The difference between kimchi and rotten cabbage is not time, its preparation. If you fuck around enough your new exploration into the wonders of fermentation could give your dinner party a light case of botulism.
“Your secret ingredient is…..DEATH”
About a year ago, Oak on Pine opened up in Bergen-Lafayette, instantly giving scumbag brokers another “feature” for their $1800 studio listing on Zillow. The sister restaurant to Paulus Hook brunch staple SamA.M, Oak would bring New American dining to the neighborhood, but more importantly a northstar for all of the niptwisting locals to sail their Park Sloping sloop towards.
Aside from pleasing the locals, Oak brought a level of quality and refinement that the neighborhood was previously lacking. I’m not lumping Harry’s into this group because locals had to suffer through the blue-balling of 5 previous establishments at that location. Oak on Pine was actually built, with wood and nails and shit, in front of those who have been let down so many times before, and they have mostly lived up to expectations.
For those of you who haven’t been, I want to recommend going here for a few reasons.
The specials are typically fire. Seasonal ingredients, local ingredients, fresh ingredients, simply and thoughtfully prepared. And most importantly it tastes good. Here are some notable specials I’ve had:
Pit Beef, Cheesesteak, Chimichurri. Any time you see a goofy sandwich on their menu you should probably get it because I’m always pretty happy with the result.
Any fish. Almost always cooked perfectly. Not inundated with sauces or gimmicks. They know how to let the star of the dish shine. Artic Char, Rainbow Trout, Octopus, Razor Clams. You’re not getting some Atlantic Salmon bullshit. You’re getting something good.
It’s not even a little bit pretentious. Their preparations aren’t wildly innovative, but it is true to form New American in a way that’s not browbeating you with non-interventionist oyster farming, but also respecting your adulthood by not giving you Tasso Ham stuffed Jalapeno Popper cheesy fuckbread, or whatever. It’s quality ingredients, prepared earnestly, and they are not trying to suck their own dicks.
It’s BYOB. While their website has the audacity to ask you to bring a max of 1 bottle for your dinner, this policy is thankfully not enforced. Two people can have a respectable dinner and come out under $50. I order like Caligula when I go out to eat, and I’ve definitely had a $37 dinner for two here. The most important part here is finding a solid bottle of wine for under $20 (follow me on Instagram). If you can do that, let ‘er rip.
They’ve got a great burger. Super simple. Won’t impress you with fancy shit on top of it. Just an insanely crave-able burger.
The ambiance is pretty fucking cool. Big windows with lots of natural light. At night the peachy streetlights give the restaurant this sepia tone which makes me feel like I’m about to murder Don Fannuci, and typically adds to my experience. An open kitchen gives you confidence in those cooking your meals. It’s warm and cozy, and whole place has this ‘new south’ Garden & Gun vibe that is palpable but not really source-able, if that makes sense. There this old janky piano that someone occasionally plays. I think there’s a big painting of an oak tree with Spanish Moss, but I could just be imagining that.
I’ve got some fucking gripes about this place too.
Leave the South alone. As you know from about 800 words ago, I once lived in the South. I’ve got strong opinions on things like BBQ, grits, collards, and other delicious things you’d associate with the South. Oak on Pine falls flat in their southern inspired dishes, and in general feels forced when you look at the totality of their offerings.
Their fried chicken is OK, but leaves a lot to be desired, mainly salt and the ability to have crunchy skin and meat accessible in the same bite.
The grits are good in a way that mozzarella sticks are universally good, mainly because they’re very cheesy and cheese is good (#deepinsights). But compared to the airy, creamy grits of the South, these are dense and linger just a bit too long.
The hot chicken is bright, apple cider vinegar forward, and definitely tasty, but only if you order it without the dry flavor muting bun it comes with. Also, its not very hot, which you cannot say if you’ve actually had hot chicken before. To be fair, something like Nashville’s hot chicken is comically spicy and I’m not looking to blow an O-ring every time I have some chicken. But the omnipotent heat is really the essence of the dish and needs to be preserved if that is what you are saying you’re going to offer.
The Mac n Cheese is a national disgrace. I probably need a heat check on my mac n cheese logic because I feel like I’m always talking shit about mac n cheese. When I order it, I expect something that is like Velveeta, but not made with Velveeta. Silky liquid that is overtly cheesey and clinging to each noodle like a Dickensian orphan.
Unfortunately, this is some of the worst I’ve had. For starters, it is roux heavy instead of cheese heavy, which gives it the taste of raw flour and butter. They also use some type of bread crumb mixture in this, which I’m guessing is supposed to soak up some of the fat and oil, but the whole thing comes out like some grainy paste.
It impossibly gets worse when you decide to get the crawfish mac n cheese, which has scant pieces of little lobster jerky and a cutesy lil’ carapace occasionally reminding you of what you ordered. I get that this is a money maker for them, and every rube with a camera in their phone wants to take a picture of it, but skip this shit.
They’re inconsistent. That burger I mentioned? I had another iteration of it earlier this year that was pretty bad. I’ve had one amazing meal here, two good meals here, and two meh meals. While I do like Oak on Pine, I’m not really compelled to make a reservation (which you almost certainly need btw) unless I see some interesting shit on their Instagram. While their specials are made by a kitchen that is seemingly passionate about doing something new, their standards are inconsistent in their quality. Give the kitchen a bunch of wild mushrooms and set them loose, you’ll wind up with something good on your plate. Get the pork chop, and you’ll get the well done hunk of shit that someone who orders this dish twice deserves.
So right about now you are probably asking yourself “what the fuck does that have to do with rotten cabbage and kimchi and all the Tony Robbins shit”? Oak on Pine came to the neighborhood at the right time. They’re less than a year old, and in the beginning of that first year there was a lot of experimentation, testing dishes, and fun things that generated a lot of buzz in the neighborhood. While this hasn’t entirely gone away, they have definitely fell into complacency, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.
Oak on Pine needs to preserve that experimental mindset as they grow and cement themselves as a staple in the neighborhood. At some point the hype will come to an end and you won’t be able to get tables filled just because you’re a new restaurant in a hot neighborhood. It will be easy to fall into the shuffle of uncountable bad to average restaurants in JC. I can’t praise Oak on Pine for fucking up some really simple things and being inconsistent, I can praise them for giving it 100% when they do shoot their shot. If you are attempting to do something great, you’ll always get the benefit of the doubt, which more than gets you a pass on the small stuff. Reward the attempt.
You need to provide interesting shit that will make people want to come back. People might not come back for the chicken, they definitely wont come back for the mac n cheese, but they will come back for a dependable demonstration of creativity and thoughtful dishes. That’s the difference between getting by and getting better.
So when you go to Oak on Pine, because you should 100% go, order the specials.
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