Under new chef-partner John Tesar, the Dallas Design District restaurant Oak has flashes of finesse.  Pekin duck breast with smoked sunchoke puree, roasted grapes, sauteed treviso and a drizzle of duck demiglass was terrific.

Under new chef-partner John Tesar, the Dallas Design District restaurant Oak has flashes of finesse.  Pekin duck breast with smoked sunchoke puree, roasted grapes, sauteed treviso and a drizzle of duck demiglass was terrific.

Allison Slomowitz/Special Contributor

The Dallas foodiesphere was taken by surprise in January when Oak -- the beautiful Design District establishment -- suddenly had a new chef, John Tesar.

It wasn't just that it's fairly uncommon for a celebrity chef to take control of an established restaurant, or that this was already the fourth chef for the place, which had opened only three years earlier. Or that it had recently earned a glowing four-star review under its departing chef, Brian Zenner.

Oak

The excited buzz came from the fact that Oak's new kitchen boss was this particular celebrity chef, who has a way of grabbing headlines. Back in 2011, the one-time executive chef of the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek beamed out from a D Magazine cover proclaiming him "The Most Hated Chef in Dallas." The following year he attracted national attention as an in-your-face contestant on Season 10 of Top Chef. Last year, when my three-star review of his modern steakhouse, Knife, went live, he responded with an obscene tweet. The national food press was all over it.

Tesar's new affiliation with Oak was part of a much bigger deal: He joined forces with Richard and Tiffanee Ellman's Apheleia Restaurant Group as chef- partner. In addition to overseeing the kitchen at Oak, the deal put him in charge of Apheleia's two other Design District restaurants: El Bolero, a newish Mexican place, and Pakpao, a casual Thai spot.

The dishes I found at Oak when I stopped in for dinner three months after Tesar took over -- including squid stuffed with pasty lamb filling on a bland cabbage salad flanked by an out-of-whack-spicy aji amarillo sauce, or pork tenderloin on a soggy Korean vegetable pancake with kimchi sauce -- were generally so disappointing that I concluded it wasn't the moment to review yet.

They certainly didn't accomplish what Richard Ellman told me last week that he was looking for Tesar to deliver: approachable, elegant global cuisine. "Apheleia, not to be too philosophical," Ellman said, "is the goddess of simplicity."

I waited till late July to return -- and was delighted to find Oak greatly improved. The more approachable modern American dinner menu now tilted decidedly toward the Mediterranean; the cooking was more confident and careful.

There was delicate, tender mezzaluna pasta dabbed with house-made ricotta and mint leaves, each packet filled with a silken purée of artichoke and lolling in a saffron broth so soft and fragrant we polished it off with a serving spoon. A lemony pesto encircled crisp and fragile brik -- paper-thin Tunisian pastry fried to lovely golden enrobing perfectly cooked, flavorful prawns. Glistening smoked trout roe and yellow-orange fragments of squash blossom set off super light and tender little gnocchi mingled with sweet crabmeat.

I loved one of the main courses: beautifully cooked slices of duck breast on a smoked sunchoke purée, with a drizzle of duck demiglace and sautéed treviso leaves whose gentle bitterness offset nicely the sweetness of roasted grapes.

Other mains were fine if unremarkable, as in an arctic char fillet on English pea purée with maitake mushrooms, slightly undercooked pearl onions and peas. Or medallions of Wagyu skirt steak on a bit of jus with roasted shallot and braised baby fennel. The main course that sounded most interesting, slow-cooked Berkshire pork short rib with Texas peach, wax beans, black garlic and caramelized pork jus, sorely disappointed. Though it had plenty of fat, the underseasoned meat was somehow dried out; no way the tiny blip of sauce on the plate could save it.

The experience was generally impressive, though, and chef de cuisine Ross Demers came to the table to introduce himself. Tesar was not in the house, which isn't unusual for a busy chef-partner overseeing several restaurants; his job is to assemble a strong team in kitchen. Tesar brought Demers on board in early May.

The cooking on two subsequent dinnertime visits was terribly uneven. The pork short rib was more succulent, with wonderful crispy-chewy edges, so that was nice. But two fish dishes, including a lovely special of black bass on trumpet mushrooms, melted leeks and sliced black radishes in a white-soy-dashi broth, came to the table cold; a halibut dish and a beautifully cooked prime rib-eye filet were woefully undersalted.

Dessert from executive pastry chef David Collier include citrus curd iwth Swiss meringue and orange sorbet. 

Dessert from executive pastry chef David Collier include citrus curd iwth Swiss meringue and orange sorbet. 

Allison Slomowitz/Special Contributor

Too bad about the halibut, thick fillets carefully cooked just to moist silkiness, blanketed in Microplaned black truffles and set over buttery sautéed chanterelles accented with tomato. Happily it came to the table warm and well-seasoned the next time I ordered it, but this time the chanterelles were undercooked (crunchy!), and the truffles had no flavor.

A plate of Akaushi sirloin was more successful: beautifully cooked medium-rare slices set on a flavorful jus with pearl onions and caramelized (slightly undercooked) baby fennel.

Starters, so impressive a few weeks prior, were all over the place. Gnocchi and crispy brik prawn were once again delightful, but those artichoke mezzaluna I'd so enjoyed now starred cardboard-tough pasta. A carpaccio of bigeye tuna -- long, thin-cut rectangles laid on a plate, dabbed with avocado purée and decorated with micro basil, sliced chives and scallions and cherry tomatoes -- was absolutely flat.

Oak's dining room, though still lovely, feels less elegant than it used to, thanks to techno-dance music played on the loud side and a TV screen tuned to sports near the bar. And the seven-page global wine list could use some attention. A spokeswoman for Oak says it is updated weekly, but more often than not, the restaurant tends to be "out of" whatever bottle I happen to choose -- usually one of the few affordable food-friendly reds.

With few exceptions, the service over the course of five visits has been excellent -- gracious, knowledgeable about the menu and just formal enough. Often it's perfect -- anticipitating needs before they're felt, and completely unobtrusive.

The best surprise about Oak on this go-round was how lovely it is at lunchtime when soft, pretty light fills the dining room; it's a great place for a civilized business lunch.

That said, the daytime menu seems unsure about whether to go cheffy and impressive or keep itself more classic-familiar. In the cheffy column were two splendid and elegant soups, including a chanterelle soup du jour -- a velvety, intensely flavorful velouté poured tableside over a garnish of beautifully cooked wild mushrooms. Just as wonderful was a frothy celery velouté poured over lightly curried crabmeat and salmon roe.

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Our main courses were in the familiar column. A nearly perfect, carefully dressed Niçoise salad featured seared rare tuna, fingerling potatoes, white anchovies and stunningly flavorful Cabernet tomatoes, along with the requisite haricots verts, olives and eggs, which were a wee bit too hard-boiled. A burger, made with beef from 44 Farms cooked spot-on juicy medium-rare and draped in melted cheddar, was fabulous, classically garnished and served on a brioche bun with golden fries. Simple, to be sure, but excellent all around.

At dinnertime, I quite enjoyed David Collier's desserts. The executive pastry chef has been working with Tesar for years, including at Knife. Here they're somewhat more approachable, with the exception of a difficult-to-eat layered compressed summer melon composition (it kept falling apart). The unanimous favorite more than once was a peach number: thin wafers sandwiching peach ganache, with poufs of mascarpone mousseline on top, a stripe of peach marmalade and a quenelle of peach ice cream.

Even more enjoyable were the less elaborate desserts at lunchtime -- particularly a wonderful citrus curd topped with soft meringue and orange sorbet.

Are you wondering who creates the savory dishes? It depends who you ask. Demers, who also served as Tesar's chef de cuisine at his erstwhile seafood restaurant, Spoon, telephoned me unbidden to say, regarding his longtime boss's involvement, "There's not one dish on the menu that's his. I wanted to go on record with that."

Tesar and Richard Ellman say otherwise, describing the creative menu process as collaborative. "The way I work," Tesar told me in an email, "is to let all team members have a say in what we do, with myself being the one with the final say."

Does any of this matter? Clearly it does to a young chef de cuisine who may be seeking recognition. But it doesn't to most diners, whose only concern is what lands before them. In any case, rare is the kitchen where creative collaboration isn't the norm.

Tesar isn't getting less busy: Among other projects, he's poised to open (with Apheleia) an ambitious Italian restaurant, Gravy 51 Degrees. Yet eight months after he took over Oak, and nearly four years after its debut, it still feels like a work in progress.

Oak (3 stars)

Price: $$$$ (lunch starters $6 to $15, sandwiches and main course salads $12 to $19, main courses $15 to $20, two-course "power lunch" $20; dinner starters $11 to $17, main courses $29 to $54; desserts $7 to $12)

Service: Gracious, knowledgeable about the service and just formal enough

Ambience: A beautiful, spacious dining room with an inviting bar. The oak tree projected on a large video screen may be wearing a little thin, and a TV screen near the bar detracts from the elegance.

Noise level: Conversation isn't difficult, but the techno-dance music can be distracting.

Location: 1628 Oak Lawn Ave., Dallas; 214-712-9700; oakdallas.com

Hours: Lunch Monday-Friday 11 a.m. to 2p.m.; dinner Monday-Thursday 5 to 10p.m., Friday-Saturday 5 to 10:30 p.m.

Reservations: Accepted

Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

Alcohol: Full bar. A pricey seven-page global wine list, with 23 selections offered by the glass, includes plenty of sexy bottles, but few affordable food-friendly reds. There's also a brief list of pricier "cellar selections."

Ratings legend

5 stars: Extraordinary

4 stars: Excellent

3 stars: Very good

2 stars: Good

1 star: Fair

No stars: Poor

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