The squid ink farfalle pasta at the new Oak + Rowan is pretty much the perfect plate. Briny black bow-ties handmade in-house are topped with a combination of delicate pheasant confit and a generous amount of buttery, rich uni, balanced with the complex citrus of preserved lemon, to form a unique and thoroughly modern take on surf and turf.
This single dish also perfectly encapsulates owner Nancy Batista-Caswell’s meteoric rise over the last six years, from owning one small restaurant pushing the boundaries of the food scene in Newburyport to opening one of Boston’s most anticipated restaurants of 2016. Oak + Rowen deftly marries the concepts at Caswell Restaurant Group’s two Newburyport locations, mixing the contemporary light, fresh seafood preparations at Brine and the Old World earthy elegance of Ceia into one harmonious whole.
Across the menu, that mix of surf and turf takes on a variety of playful and delicious forms, like the baby octopus with bone marrow appetizer. Braised in beef stock, it has an appealing, toothsome texture, elevated by the mouth-coating bone marrow, fusing land and sea together in each bite. An entrée of lobster with gnocchi and veal sweetbreads sounds like it could be heavy, but the reality is a playful and light union of two luxurious edibles from very different habitats, with the gnocchi playing a mere supporting role. The sweet, buttery texture of the poached lobster mingles with the savory, delicate, crispy-creamy sweetbreads, while the potato gnocchi builds on the dish’s textures and compliments both. A scattering of bright, fresh seasonal cranberries enlivens the dish without overpowering it.
Unassuming chef Justin Shoults, who rose through the ranks to become executive chef at Brine before moving south to take on the top spot at Oak + Rowan, is working on a much bigger stage now; the soaring 5,000-square-foot Fort Point space is easily quadruple the size of the intimate Brine. But he is clearly up to the challenge—every dish out of the kitchen is beautifully executed, from the land-sea combos to the tasty 12-ounce sirloin.
While the space is large, careful design has created a number of unique guest experiences, from a chef’s table in a former industrial elevator shaft to the comfortable booths and bar stools covered in rich aquamarine leather. Exposed brick, loading doors, and a brightly lit Boston Water Company (BWC) sign—a stylish reference to the building’s past as the BWC—combine modern design with a warm historic vibe. Clearly, thought went into every detail, from the etched cocktail glasses to the music volume, which is loud enough to create a comfortable background buzz without drowning out dinner conversation. Even the name Oak + Rowan carries a dual meaning—when Batista-Caswell first saw the space, elevated a few steps from ground level, she immediately thought of a tree house. But the name also conveys the restaurant group’s hope to put down deep roots in Boston.
There’s no doubt Batista-Caswell has set a high bar for Oak + Rowan, placing those roots firmly in an area that is quickly becoming one of Boston’s most exciting food destinations, across the street from Ming Tsai’s Blue Dragon and around the corner from Barbara Lynch’s Menton and Sportello, with Row 34 just behind.
But Oak + Rowan has star power of its own. While much of the opening team came up through the ranks in Newburyport, Batista-Caswell scored a coup when she hired acclaimed pastry chef Brian Mercury away from Harvest in Cambridge. Known for his whimsical takes on classic desserts, his style meshes perfectly with the restaurateur’s palate and vision.
That includes rethinking the cheese plate. Rather than presenting a few precious slices lined up on a board, Shoults and Mercury work together to craft a selection of composed dishes for the cheese course, highlighting one individual cheese with a savory cracker or tiny roll. Try the French Roquefort, served on a profiterole drizzled with port wine and accented with a bright red onion marmalade. For a unique pairing, order the No. II cocktail (featured cocktails are numbered), a bright, tart mix of tequila, blackberry, lime, and arugula. The cheese enhances the briny quality in the tequila, making for a savory partnership.
Featured cocktails are made tableside from a slick cart—another of Batista-Caswell’s innovations. It’s meant to provide one more opportunity for the guests to interact with the staff.
It’s hard to choose from the seasonally driven dessert menu—each offering just as beautiful and alluring as the next. The Fall Squash was a revelation, like a multidimensional pumpkin pie balanced with a deep bitter edge, with undertones of brown sugar and house-made coffee ice cream. While chocolate desserts are so often a disappointment, the Chocolate Tart, inspired by a simple dish at Wildair in New York, is a whirl of complex flavors, enhanced with chestnut and malt, dotted with whipped cream, and served with a side of refreshingly tart plum ice cream. You may want to lick your plate, and the staff, which strikes the perfect balance between casual and attentive, won’t judge.
Oak + Rowan
321 A Street, Boston