6625 Jefferson Hwy., Harahan
Opened earlier this year, Oak Oven is an easy-going, anytime place for pizza, pasta, sandwiches and seafood that has caught on quickly thanks to a unique blend of local and traditional Italian approaches and a casually stylish setting.
Oak Oven looks new, but its distinguishing characteristic is a hold over from the past. The building was previously a fast food restaurant, and though the transformation has been pretty radical the general outline remains. Still, a profusion of small design touches add up to a casual, contemporary cafe. There's a covered deck in front, and all around the exterior a series of garden planters support a wide range of vegetables and herbs used in the kitchen. The wood-burning oven that gives the restaurant its name is clearly visible in the open kitchen.
Swift and personable under ideal conditions say, a late lunch the service can seem a little harried during a dinner rush, but this is not much different from the level of service you'd expect at a busy neighborhood restaurant. Oak Oven's dining room is smaller than it looks from the outside and it can fill up fast. Even if you don't normally think to make reservations at such a casual restaurant, it's a good idea here.
Oak Oven serves just a handful of appetizers, but the small selection is distinctive. The most familiar will be the fried eggplant, though here it's cut into irregular triangle pieces, like chips to dip in the house red sauce, which is chunky, fresh-tasting and sweet with basil. Manzo Toscano are small, thick-cut medallions of steak, roasted in the wood oven and topped with mushrooms, blue cheese and red wine for intense little bites of beef, and the fruitti di golfo is a spare, light presentation of shrimp and crabmeat with a roasted artichoke. Half portions of the pastas also make good starter courses, and sharing a pizza around the table is another option.
Just as the wood-burning oven is the center point of the kitchen, the pizzas it produces are the stars of the menu. These are small, single-serving-size numbers in the Neapolitan style, with char marking the edge of the crust and a restrained hand with the toppings. The crust is crisper than some other Neapolitan specialists around town, with more of a crackle and crunch. The pizza with lamb meatballs and fresh ricotta and the four-cheese version are standouts, along with the traditional Margherita.
Several of the pastas are made fresh in house, and these are the best, especially the broad, tender pappardelle. Paneed veal, chicken and eggplant smothered in red sauce with pasta are hearty dishes that press comfort food buttons. The fish is more interesting. Lightly grilled, it's plated over angel hair pasta dressed with a tomato-based pesto, very large lumps of crabmeat and sliced mushrooms for a rustic dish that's long on flavor but sits light on the belly.
Ciabatta sandwiches, built on house-made loaves, add to the lunch options. Check the specials board for daube or brisket and look over the long and ever-changing list of ingredients grown by the proprietors or sourced nearby.
Gelato is the only dessert, and it's a nice, simple treat at the end of the meal. I like the pine nut/caramel flavor for its mellow richness.
Oak Oven serves beer and wine only. Prices are lower than you might expect for each.
Oak Oven is a good value. Pizzas, pastas and most entrees are in the mid-teens, with a few main dishes breaking the $20 mark. There's a kids menu with meals for $5 or $6. You can get dinner for two with wine here for about $60.
There are plenty of Italian restaurants across Jefferson Parish, but this newcomer stands out for a unique mix of Creole Italian neighborhood traditions and a more regional Italian approach. Comfortable but not the same-old, same-old it's a great addition to its zip code.