Friday, July 12, 2024

The French dip with au jus at Oak Bistro in Cambridge’s Inman Square. (Photo: Tom Meek)

A few weeks ago we extolled the Korean pork sandwich at Turing Tavern in Inman Square. We again find ourselves in the square to sample the gastro finery at Oak Bistro, which opened on the same day last month and is practically next door. Oak Bistro boasts a cozy space, a place to go on a date or have intimate conversations as opposed to, say, a group gathering for sports watching or late-night imbibing and grousing. That said, it is open until 2 a.m., and with its late-night hours, bison meat, halloumi fries and more it feels a bit like The Abbey, up between Harvard and Porter squares – which should come as no surprise: The owner-chef had been cooking up the dishes at The Abbey in Brookline.

While that bodes well, it might make you wonder if this bistro offers anything new? Breathe deep and rest assured, this new entry has its own culinary signatures.

The menu’s arranged into funky, small plates, “for the table” and a mains section. The “for the table” section is a bit of an odd assortment. Some things, such as the wings (with housemade hot or honey chili sauce), mussels and those halloumi fries make sense, but butternut squash soup or the organic little leaf salad – those are just for me, sorry mates! Same for the grilled Spanish octopus with confit potatoes and lemon aioli, which had grilled meat that was tender and flavorful – there’s nothing worse than overcooked or chewy octopus – and potatoes there was nothing too confit about, though they were a nicely roasted companion, with a light application of aioli and a pickled onions and tomato relish and chili oil drizzle that brought the dish together nicely. I have yet to try the soup, but earlier I was in and had the sweet corn chowder with crabmeat croutons; it was rich and light with a nice blend of flavors, though my server told me many a customer said that they were surprised by the sweetness. (Well, the warning is right on the menu, and I hope they consider bringing it back.)

On the small plates, the braised and fried pork belly – Inman is the new unofficial place for all things porky – made it to my table by accident one night, and what a happy accident that was. The housemade potato pave (stacked squares of potato with cheese and chive, baked and pan tossed) are little golden cubes of delight. Future wants are the fried oysters (with the hope the batter doesn’t overwhelm) and blue cheese stuffed dates.

The mains have a very Abbey vibe, with homemade gnocchi, a Bolognese dish (veal vs. spicy bison), duck confit and mushroom risotto. I haven’t sampled them all, but they are similar and distinct at the same time.

I checked out the French dip with the side of au jus dip expecting a lean, red heap on a French bun, but I missed the “panini” tag on the menu and what came out was very much like The Abbey’s delicious cubano with beef – pressed perfectly, lean and similarly sating. The dip was nice, but not necessary because the Gruyere and caramelized onion were enough of an accent. Things you can get to substitute for fries include roasted rainbow cauliflower with fried capers and lemon yogurt, and the caramelized Brussels sprouts prepared with local honey. Strangely, Oak Bistro isn’t online except for Instagram and a Toast portal to order through. 

Oak Bistro, 1287 Cambridge St., Inman Square, Cambridge

Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in the WBUR ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.