Tucked away on the corner of Webster and Racine is an idyllic place called White Oak Tavern & Inn. This rustic gastropub is thoughtful and inviting, in both its cuisine and ambiance. The tufted armchairs and couches summoned me to sit down, and the intoxicating smells from the kitchen attracted me to the menu. The well-informed server walked me through the cocktail list and then made some wine recommendations, I landed on the Evesham Wood Pinot Noir, a slightly smoky wine from Oregon.
The Spinach Salad came first. The locally sourced ingredients were at their peak of freshness. Made with pickled fennel, Manchego cheese, Italian red lettuce and citrus supremes, this mild salad was dressed in avocado-apple vinaigrette that added sweetness to the slightly bitter greens. The wide strips of thinly sliced cheese were moist and tangy and accentuated the fruity notes of the other components. This was a light and refreshing way to begin the meal. Chef Tom Van Lente prides himself on his willingness to go the extra mile for seasonal and organic ingredients, and with good reason. He even let me in on a little secret – one of the farmers from whom he purchases ingredients works with two mules and nothing else to preserve the quality of the ingredients – authentic farming.
The Crispy Pork, dressed in honey and soy and accompanied by radishes and cilantro, sat atop a generous portion of kimchi aioli. This starter was a game changer. Succulent and flavorful, the pork was superbly cooked and each ingredient played an important role on the plate. Beyond the rich and fanciful taste were the harmonious and well-structured textures. Each ingredient fulfilled a textural purpose. The crispiness of the pork was heightened by the crunch from the radishes and the leafiness of the cilantro. The stickiness of the honey and soy were diluted by the bright and velvety aioli. I could have licked the plate clean.
But perhaps the most thought-provoking dish of the evening was the Scallops, which were anything but traditional. In lieu of the conventional mollusk was a scallop-white fish sausage, seared and golden brown. Interwoven with peppery Japanese greens, a piquant lemon puree and mild puffed wild rice, it was complex, memorable and something I would order again. The House Made Fettuccini was comforting and delicious. The thick ribbons of pasta were covered in a generous portion of Pecorino Romano cheese and tossed with spinach, plump cherry tomatoes and basil. The sunflower seeds, which were sprinkled on top, added a satisfying crunch.
Left to my own devices, I would rarely walk into a restaurant, look down at the menu and order a roasted chicken. However, after having the Crispy Half Chicken at White Oak, poultry dishes have recaptured my attention. Brimming with eastern European flavors, this tender chicken had a crispy skin and sat on top of beautiful, braised cabbage and button mushrooms. The chicken was robust and the whole grain mustard jus was extremely palatable. It left an unforgettable mark on my taste buds and was complemented by the flavors of crème fraiche and dill. Simply put, it was remarkable.
In my eyes, no meal is complete without cookies. And having an affinity for chocolate chip cookies myself, I was delighted to find Cookies & Caramel on the dessert menu. A top-secret pastry chef was brought in to help conceptualize the sweets at White Oak (I really wish I was allowed to tell you who) and her and Chef Tom worked together to create approachable, yet distinctive options. The chocolate chip cookies were fresh baked, warm and gooey with a crunchy exterior and cloudlike center. I used a small spoon to drizzle the sumptuous caramel over the top of each one.
From dish to dish it is easy to tell if something is going amiss in the kitchen. Each plate at White Oak Tavern & Inn had a tactful and well thought out signature, making it easy to infer that Chef Tom and the rest of the staff have a deep love and serious passion for what they are doing. The truth is in the taste and the taste of the food at White Oak Tavern & Inn is truly gratifying.
1200 West Webster Avenue, Chicago, IL 60614