Oak at Fourteenth, 1400 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-444-3622, oakatfourteenth.com
A bright, open space just off the Pearl Street Mall; a diverse, ever-changing seasonal menu; wood-fire cooking that adds depth
Cooking over an open flame is tricky and can create inconsistencies in execution.
Apple and kale salad, braised meatballs, wood-grilled lamb T-bones, East Aspen Heights cocktail, milk chocolate cremoso
$$$ (Average price per entrée: $25)
Food: 3 stars
Service: 3 stars
Ambience: 3 1/2 stars
In my earliest memory of wood-fire cooking, my uncle is standing outside our family’s summer cabin next to a bonfire he’d built with spiky manzanita gathered from the property. All of us—cousins, sisters, grown-ups—are still in bathing suits from a day at the river, and we can feel the flames’ searing heat along the full length of our bodies. My uncle grilled over a wood flame because of the smoky flavor it imparted—or so he said. But watching him work the fire while wiping sweat from his forehead, his real motivation was clear: He cooked over wood fires because it was primal, masculine, athletic. It’s as if he were saying anyone can squirt lighter fluid over charcoal and strike a match. But producing the perfect steak over a flaming hunk of wood? That’s an achievement.
Like my uncle, 33-year-old chef and co-owner Steven Redzikowski of Oak at Fourteenth in Boulder worships the wood flame—and the challenge it presents. Walk into his restaurant just off Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall and you’ll immediately spot a raised open oven with a pyramid of fresh logs blazing inside. Next to the oven, yellow flames lick the wood-burning grill. The wood of choice? Oak, of course. It’s as if Redzikowski is saying anyone can turn a knob. But cooking with oak in the middle of the city? That’s an achievement.
I mention this not because Redzikowski takes a He-Man approach to cooking, but precisely because he doesn’t. With a history of cooking at upscale places such as Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, the Little Nell in Aspen, and Le Cirque 2000 in New York City, his resumé is far too sophisticated for that. Yes, wood fires form the centerpiece of Redzikowski’s kitchen, but there’s much more to Oak at Fourteenth. There’s the light and sophisticated modern space with clean lines, a wall of street-facing windows, and a long bar with counter seating where you can catch a bit of kitchen theater. There’s the menu built around fresh, seasonal ingredients (it changes every few days), be it spring peas and soft-shell crabs, or heirloom tomatoes and summer corn. And although a range of oak-grilled meats and other dishes are proffered, they sit comfortably alongside the soups, salads, pastas, and small plates. In short: The fire thing is there, but no one’s hitting you over the head with it.
Only three dishes remain constant on Oak’s menu: kale salad, braised meatballs, and fried pickles. There’s nothing ho-hum about the salad’s combination of kale, Parmesan, crunchy-sweet candied almonds, and tart apple. Here’s a crunch of almond, there’s a burst of apple, and all within a lemon vinaigrette topped with a wink of togarashi red chile. This starter is so satisfying, I’ve raved about it to friends, I’ve tried to make it at home (and failed), and I finally resorted to begging Redzikowski for the recipe—as do many other diners each week.
Should you pass on the salad, don’t do the same for the braised meatballs. Made from a mixture of ground pork belly (which self-bastes the meatball while cooking) and flavorful grass-fed beef, the soft spheres are served with Burrata and the cozy comfort of creamy grits, tomato sauce, and sweet basil.
The third mainstay, fried pickles with green goddess aïoli, fails to impress me. The aïoli is too bland to balance the sour pickle, and the fried crust is a shade too oily to enjoy. A far more satisfying choice from the shared plates menu is the crunchy, grilled bruschetta spread with creamy chèvre and topped with a rustic blend of fava beans and olives.
Redzikowski cooks with oak—and named his restaurant after it—because the hardwood burns hot and long, and its smoke imparts a subtle, campfire taste without overwhelming the food the way mesquite or hickory often does. When the balance between flame and ember works, the depth of flavor is impressive—as it is with the grilled Colorado lamb T-bones. The two bone-in pieces of meat are beautifully charred and smoky on the outside, but still supremely tender. Served atop a cool salad of chewy farro enlivened with ancho chile and honey yogurt, the dish showcases what the world of wood-fire cooking is all about.
Inconsistency in execution is a challenge all restaurants face, though, and the challenge is particularly acute when wood is involved. An example: The oak-grilled short ribs—braised for 12 hours before grilling—are fork tender but could use a bit more flavor (read: time over the fire). That would help the beef hold up to the mantle of sweet hoisin sauce.
Similarly, the wood-fired shishito peppers need more time on the flame—they suffer from a lack of smoke, blister, and taste. The fennel sausage and the delectable harissa sauce served on the side helps somewhat, but not enough to hoist the dish up to something I’d order again.
While we’re talking about the unpredictable nature of fire, now is a good time to inject a bit of backstory. If you don’t live in Boulder, you may not know that Oak at Fourteenth originally opened in November 2010. Four months later, it was destroyed by—wait for it—fire. Not in the kitchen, but in the ductwork above. Despite being a total loss, Redzikowski and co-owner Brian Dayton vowed to rebuild. A newly remodeled and slightly larger restaurant reopened last December. (Tip: Ask to be seated in the energetic main dining room, not the newly expanded and quieter space off to the right.)
No matter where you're seated, the servers at Oak at Fourteenth are knowledgeable, collegial, and they share table duties with one another, which is good news if you have a tendency to forget who your waitperson is. There were a few hiccups in timing, however, with servers arriving too slowly and then rushing off too quickly. (“But wait! We wanted a second glass of wine!”)
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the restaurant’s East Aspen Heights cocktail, which took top honors in 2011 at a competition co-sponsored by Bombay Sapphire and GQ magazine. Developed by Dayton, the drink combines gin, herb-infused simple syrup, pear juice, and muddled blackberries to create a balanced cocktail that can both warm on winter days and cool in the summer. Something about this drink—perhaps it’s the deep sun-burnt color, or the earthy-herby base notes—makes it the ideal cocktail for a restaurant where appetites are satisfied based on the most primitive cooking method available. Even my uncle, a Scotch man from way back, would likely approve.