By Frank Sabatini Jr.
If you suspect the cuisine at Fort Oak in Mission Hills parallels that of Trust in Hillcrest, you’ve accurately connected the dots. Both are co-owned by chef Brad Wise, who at each restaurant favors using ovens fueled by red oak to roast proteins and vegetables.
Wise also has stakes in two other Uptown establishments — Hundred Proof and Small Bar. But those kitchens take an entirely different approach to cooking, resulting in what he describes fondly as “solid bar food.”
As the younger and perhaps trendier sibling of Trust, the newish Fort Oak greets with a cool, recreated facade of an old Ford dealership that once stood further back on the lot. Pass through its threshold and you’re in the bar lounge.
There are two other detached spaces as well, each a stone’s throw from one another — and with courtyard seating in between.
A second structure houses Fort Oak’s exhibition kitchen. This is where a cozy 14-seat dining counter puts you face to face with the crackling wood-burning oven and racks of provisions as they cook.
In yet another section is the main dining room, defined by stylish midcentury appointments. It’s where a friend and I sat for a weeknight dinner, when every table became occupied amid a harsh din that competed with unidentifiable tunes playing in muffled bass.
When I spoke to Wise a couple weeks later about the noise level, he assured sound-proofing panels were on order. Once installed, I vote for jazz music to grace the space.
Many of Fort Oak’s dishes are geared for the grill, and to a fair degree, they’re more complex compared to those at Trust.
Among the exceptions, however, is the simple must-try coppa ham plate. It features thinly sliced ribbons of shoulder meat that is cured for two weeks in “ham brine,” as described by our informed waiter. Three accompaniments sent the dish into high heaven: sweet house pickles and Gruyere cheese melted over dark rye bread that’s baked in-house. We suddenly felt like dinner guests at some country home in rural France. The only thing missing was Dijon or stone-ground mustard.
Another straight-forward dish was little neck clams served in the half shell over ice. A spritz of lemon, a dab of cocktail sauce, and presto — they disappeared in six easy slurps.
Share plates such as those comprise a majority of the menu. And the dishes that followed, including a Duroc pork chop in black garlic sauce from the small entree list, felt uniquely out of the box.
Top round beef tartar sporting a soft quail on top was encircled by chopped hard-boiled eggs, diced parsley, fresh horseradish and more fabulous rye bread. The dish was salty in all the right places as capers and bits of pickle emerged. German haute cuisine flaunting its rustic roots came to mind.
The two jaw-dropping dishes of the evening were charred caulilini and Baja crab salad.
Caulilini is the latest buzz vegetable considered to be the love child of broccolini and cauliflower. It offers a sweet, nutty flavor, which under Wise’s magic wand pairs eloquently to currants, smoked almonds, shallot vinaigrette and a generous smear of fermented chili aioli.
As my friend summed up when forking into the kaleidoscopic medley, “If you’re a person who doesn’t like vegetables, this is the perfect dish,” referring to the sweet, spicy, salty and crunchy sensations we picked up in every mouthful.
Nowhere else will you find crab salad swept up in a chorus of raw apples, apple consomme, apple chutney and fruity tasting aleppo peppers. The pairing of shredded crab meat to high doses of the tree fruit is stunningly novel — a wake-up call to taste buds accustomed to shellfish doused in citrus.
The aforementioned pork chop ran the gamut from lovable to overly salty, depending where in the accordion-sliced meat we jabbed our forks. The end pieces, normally my favorite, were riddled with sodium, which seemed to originate from the black garlic sauce. The interior slices, however, were largely untouched by the sauce and offered the homey essence of juicy pork.
Adding verve to the entree were garlic chips, ginger, and roasted Brussels sprouts and potatoes — a flawless plate upstaged only by a heavy hand of the white stuff.
Fort Oak’s dishes incite many afterthoughts because of their brilliant intricacies, which have become Wise’s badge of honor ever since he opened Trust three years ago.
As an industrious chef-entrepreneur, his talents are versatile, and he’s quick to share the kudos his cooking receives.
For this venture, he credits executive sous chef Mark Schmitt (formerly of Cucina Urbana) for helping to develop the menu, which also includes seafood towers, hearth-grilled branzino, rabbit sausage and other exquisite creations that refreshingly escape the food scene’s copycat circuit.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.