Oakleaf is well named. As the leaf spurns the affectations of the hothouse, so the restaurant spurns the affectations of post-millennial cuisine. It does not embody a rigorous Japanese minimalism. Nor does it interrogate the relation between gastronomy and modern art. Nor does it experiment with the chemistry of foams, gels and powders.
Oaken in the moral sense, it upholds consistency, commonsense and unpretentious craft, very much in the spirit of the handsome old textile mill it occupies on the outskirts of downtown Pittsboro. This is haute cuisine grounded by homespun instinct.
Oakleaf is not as subtle or inventive as Panciuto in Hillsborough, which I consider the best restaurant in the Triangle, but it represents the same school of thought. Forgoing the dazzle of the esoteric and rarefied, it elevates relatively humble ingredients and simple preparations. (Panciuto has been known to gamble on a dessert of granola and vanilla yogurt, which takes faith in this metamorphic power to a daredevil extreme.)
Again like Panciuto, Oakleaf strives to reconcile fine and family dining. The Hillsborough restaurant offers a reduced-price menu on Wednesdays and Thursdays, while Oakleaf offers a moderately priced lunch menu and a recession-friendly Saturday brunch (entrées in the $7–$9.50 range).
The lesson of Chapel Hill's Bonne Soiree, the superb but ceremonially hushed French restaurant that closed in 2011, has apparently registered. There are simply not enough well-heeled retirees celebrating their 40th wedding anniversaries to go around. Making a virtue of what may be necessity, Oakleaf offers a family-oriented menu, extending to budding gourmets a non-condescending selection of burgers, fish, meatballs, steak and, of course, buttered noodles. The noodles might seem a weary submission to the Pop-Tart palate, but these noodles happen to be impeccable housemade garganelli. I defy any adult not to eye them covetously.
Chef-owner Brendan Cox ranges freely and creatively (moules frites, mushroom risotto and the Vietnamese "banh mi" sandwich all figure in the menu), but his cuisine has an inherently American spirit. It looks you in the eye and says what it means. A trill of native notes—apple, bourbon, buttermilk, maple, pecan, pumpkin, root beer—reiterates the point.
Patrons needn't agonize over the ever-changing menu. You can't go wrong, as far as I can tell. The duck confit in orange-balsamic sauce managed to win over even my young daughter, whose favorite meal is white rice. Unable to weather a barrage of parental threats, she took a skeptical nibble. The first crispy-juicy bite retired all cartoon-inspired concerns about "little duckies." She devoured the whole thing and all but mopped the plate with her tongue. This superb appetizer deserves headline status as an entrée.
Other laudable appetizers include the arugula and beet salad with honeyed goat cheese mousse and toasted hazelnuts, which is full of intricate acidic interplay, and the smoked trout with blini, lemon cream, capers and a fluffy mince of hardboiled egg. My review of other tables suggests that the latter dish flies out of the kitchen. The capers and egg do nicely as paired opposites, but if I may be permitted a super-subtle quibble: the trout and blini, with their analogous chew, present an insufficient textural contrast.
Entrées march from strength to strength. The gnocchi served on a whipped cloud of puréed squash is one of the best pasta dishes in the Triangle. The rib-eye steak is a hefty and tender slab mounted on a bed of wilted kale and pleasantly al dente fingerling potatoes. Is there a better plate of meat within 20 miles? Fifty? Unhappy experiences at several local steakhouses say perhaps not.
A talented kitchen can always generate winning desserts, but Oakleaf, like Panciuto, seems less creatively engaged when it comes to flour, butter and sugar. The apple crostada with ginger-apple butter, cinnamon whipped cream and cardamom-wine syrup is the exception that proves the rule. Soulful, mellow and golden, it's autumn on a plate, the fading year somehow implicated in its muted sweetness.
Good—but not as good—is the souffléed buttermilk lemon pudding with macerated raspberry and wine sauce. I admire the dueling acidities in this lip-puckering ensemble, and the wine is a welcome complication, but the soufflé itself is merely cake-like.
The maple pecan cheesecake with pecan brittle would go well at the end of mom's Thanksgiving dinner, but unlike the crostada it has no poetry. It's merely sweet. The root beer crème brûlée is the only menu item that calls for a degree of rebuke. A thin, weepy layer of custard is—or was on my visit—topped by an uneven veneer of caramelized sugar, in some places too thin and completely melted, in other places congealed into burnt platelets of hard candy.
Brunch is an essay in homey comforts. The meal begins with complimentary beignets belonging to the bready rather than battery tradition. These golden-brown bulbs withstand memories of New Orleans' Café du Monde, though a heavier dusting of powdered sugar would do them more justice. Eggs, potatoes, bacon, French toast and good French-pressed coffee have all their usual appeal. The dollar-size buttermilk pancakes rise in a wavering tower above a moat of browned butter. Thick and hearty, having no truck with the vogue for crepes, these pancakes beg for the lingo of cast-iron days. You want to call them flapjacks or griddlecakes.
Rounding out the menu was a special of fried chicken and potato hash piled atop a halved buttermilk biscuit and drowned in maple-rosemary gravy. This was fried chicken not as Colonel Sanders serves it, in greasy boxes and bags of modern despair, but as a Thanksgiving feast unto itself. This is a dish that could have been cooked up—dreamed up—only by a generous spirit.
Five months into its tenure, Oakleaf already belongs among the Triangle's top 10 restaurants. It doesn't deconstruct the square meal but reconstructs it. It doesn't subvert tradition but restores it. The humility of this enterprise is worth pondering, whatever one's own calling.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Uniting fine and family dining."