I have now enjoyed a version of chef Demetrios Atheneos' truly delicious fried chicken livers at three different restaurants. His Devils on Horseback, Amish chicken and waffles, and duck confit mac and cheese also seem to follow him around like the eyes in a creepy painting. And while he invented absolutely none of these dishes, they have more or less become signature plates for the former chef of Deagan's, Bodega and Giovanni's.
When Atheneos left Deagan's to open Oak Barrel with partner Fady Chamoun of Aladdin's fame, it was fully expected that he would reprise some of his longstanding dishes, he explains.
"A lot of these recipes me and my team have been doing for years," he says. "People associate me with them and them with me. I take them with me wherever I go."
Fortunately for diners, Oak Barrel is more than just an anthology of the chef's greatest hits. The new setting – a barn-size affair that originally was home to Hoggy's – has provided the chef infinitely more room to tinker in the kitchen, bar and dining room. A quick glance at the menu (not to mention the beer list) shows just how much more room the chef has to play with.
They say "everything is big in Texas," but that could just as easily be the motto here. The restaurant can accommodate 450 people – a 350-percent increase over Deagan's. The menu, too, is approximately 25 percent meatier, with entire sections devoted to tacos and flatbreads. That's in addition to the 20 or so snacks and starters, 10 salads, and 20 sandwiches and entrees. Portions are robust, prices reasonable and, by and large, execution exceptional.
Those nubby, fried chicken livers ($8) are as fine as ever, piled high above a puddle of creamy polenta. Pieces of crunchy fried pork skin and crispy onion straws add to amusement park of textures. A large faux-newspaper cone barely could contain an order of tire-size beer-battered onion rings ($7), paired with a kicky aioli. The duck fat-popped popcorn ($4), while a festive bar snack, could have used a better toss to distribute the truffle oil, cilantro and chile-lime salt. Also on the starter roster are the chef's goat cheese-gilded deviled eggs ($3) and ale-steamed mussels frites ($9).
I liked where the chef was going with the pork "rilletes" ($7) – in truth, a mound of smoked pulled pork – but he just didn't get there. It wasn't until halfway through the dish that we even discovered the thin corn cake beneath, and the chilly slaw topper managed to temper the entire dish down to lukewarm levels. Not counting specials on Tuesdays, there are five different tacos on the regular menu. Spicy shrimp (a personal favorite from that other restaurant) is there, as are others filled with BBQ pork, flat iron steak, ahi tuna, and chicken. Prices are $9 to $13 for three, including chips and salsa.
Fish fry fans should sidestep the dingy church gymnasium and head to Oak Barrel for their near-perfect fried walleye dinner ($17). A net-load of downy white fish fingers are encased in golden brown jackets, paired with killer fries and a spicy remoulade. A massive portion of fried chicken and waffles ($18) – doused with fruit-laced maple syrup and sweet-and-spicy whipped butter – could feed a small family.
Atheneos inherited a beefy rotisserie smoker from the former tenant, but his baby back ribs ($15/half) still need some tweaking before they'll win any awards. Lean, dry and a tad charred, the ribs fell short of porky perfection.
One of the biggest improvements to the space occurred in the barroom. The chef and his wife personally redesigned the room, leaving it surprisingly contemporary yet rustic. A string of 30 tap handles is set against a wall of sleek-white subway tile, behind which lies an immense cooler dedicated to craft draft and bottles. That space allows Oak Barrel to offer 250 beers, including many large-format and hard-to-score drafts.
The restaurant's central location near the crossroads of I-480 and I-77, says Atheneos, means that both East Side and West Side fans of his food have relatively easy access. While I've never seen the place operating at capacity, I was pleasantly surprised on two occasions to observe a full parking lot and an active dining room and bar.
Atheneos looks at his voluminous new digs not as a liability, but rather an asset.
"Volume lets you do things you couldn't do at 100-seat restaurant," says the chef, referring largely to portion size and price. "I always say, 'You put dollars in the bank not percentages.'"