The Evergreen Wednesday [12.19.12] Alum’s Oak takes root in Dallas Sofia Shirley Asst. Features Editor Christina Zhu Staff Writer The first thing we noticed when we walked through Oak’s doors was the image of a tree, projected on the restaurant wall. Instead of a traditional painting, the moving image appeared to blow in the wind. Like this unconventional image, Oak brings a new twist to Dallas dining. Within a year of opening its doors last December, it recently won the title of Best New Restaurant in D Magazine. The classy music, friendly waiters, and the impeccable layout seem effortless, but there is thought and work in this establishment. Behind Oak and its success are Richard Ellman ‘89 and his wife Tiffanee. The pair opened Oak based on a shared love of food. “It has been a passion of both of ours before we even met. We started talking about this concept. I’m typically a person that when I get an idea I follow through, and I think Tiffanee didn’t realize how dead serious I was,” Mr. Ellman said. Previously, Mr. Ellman owned the Sunset Lounge with fellow Greenhill alums. While there, he met Tommy DeAlano, who is now the third owner of Oak. For their new restaurant venture, the Ellmans wanted to create their own niche in the competitive Dallas scene. “Dallas is very centered on Southern cooking and steakhouses. We wanted to bring a new take on food to Dallas,” Tiffanee Ellman said. To secure chefs who could realize that objective, they conducted a slew of interviews and then held a Top-Chef style showdown. “We gave them the direction we wanted the food to go in: global and elegant, but simple and clean. And then we saw what menus they came up with and did the challenge in a commercial kitchen,” Mr. Ellman said. The three owners formed a judges’ panel to taste the chefs’ dishes and ultimately chose Jason Maddy as Oak’s executive chef. Sous chefs Brian Zenner and Sarah Green round out Oaks’ chef trio. Both Jason Maddy and Brian Zenner worked at the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek, and Sarah Green crafted the pastries at the Second Floor in the Galleria. Location was another important consideration for the restaurant. The Ellmans ultimately decided on the Design District, which is close in proximity to downtown, but separated enough to let the restaurant shine on its own. “This area is not fragmented like some other places, where there’s a lot of different things going on,” Mr. Ellman said. “They don’t want big national brands here, and this place is growing like crazy. There are lots of new residential buildings, and people work near here. We saw it as an untapped gem in Dallas.” But even with the best planning, opening a restaurant is an expensive and risky project. Some friends and family members voiced their doubts prior to the opening. “I got some two-page e-mails from certain friends about things they thought would go wrong. To open a restaurant you have to be really confident, but of course sometimes in the back of your head you’re worried that they’re right,” Mr. Ellman said. Mrs. Ellman worked with Dallas Photos courtesy of Lindsey Miller and Assoc. STURDY AS OAK: A dish of Gianduja chocolate panna cotta, prepared by pastry chef Sarah Green (top). Oak lights up the Design District (left). Owners Richard Ellman ‘89, Tiffanee Ellman, and Tommy DeAlano are Oak’s executive decisions (right). design firm Plan B on the interior of the restaurant. From the modern art to the furniture and muted color palette, her goal is for people to walk in and sense Oak’s contemporary vibe. As for the floor plan itself, the Ellmans wanted to create a single dining space with both the private room and bar leading directly to the main dining area. “It’s supposed to feel like you are in a chef ’s living room having a dinner party,” Mr. Ellman said. (On the D magazine blog, Nancy Nichols even said that the interior looks like a “modern living room.”) Despite the air of elegance, both the design and food had to stay affordable. “She’s the price Nazi,” Mr. Ellman joked about his wife, whose background is in retail. She defended herself as wanting the restaurant to have a place in the current economy. “We wanted to have a value restaurant with an amazing experience for not a lot of money,” Mrs. Ellman said. As owners, the Ellmans are in charge of the overall vision for the restaurant and all major decisions. “In the restaurant business there are always things that you have to deal with. We consistently have to strive to improve and change things. [It might be] some modifications to the patio or looking into floral changes, but pretty much not a week goes by that we don’t change something,” Mr. Ellman said. The Ellmans give their chefs free rein over most of the menu, though they “like to be involved with directional changes in the menu,” Mr. Ellman said. “However, we don’t want to over-control what the chefs do. So we give them a specific vision and we trust their skill set to create within our guidelines,” Mrs. Ellman added. The chefs at Oak have lived and worked in different parts of the world and incorporate that into their dishes to achieve a global feel. Chef Jason Maddy cooked in Austria over a year, so he created an authentic veal schnitzel appetizer that is one of his prized dishes. “We really wanted the menu [to be] very global, so it draws on elements and styles from different parts of the world,” Mr. Ellman said. The menu changes seasonally with the exception of a few dishes; such as the Moroccan Octopus and Pork Jowl and the Ligurian Caesar. “One of the reasons the Caesar is so special is that our pastry chef hand-bakes the bread, so there are hand-torn, daily-baked croutons, and the dressing is house-made and a very special, unique dressing,” Mr. Ellman said. This adventurous approach to food was obvious as the Ellman’s infant son Greyson sat with us during the interview. Greyson, who “came into the world simultaneously with the opening of Oak,” sat happily eating a side of spaetzle with caramelized onions, Gruyere, and nutmeg. “We don’t serve mac ‘n cheese,” Mrs. Ellman laughed. “Last week, Greyson was in here eating our goat gnocchi.” Oak prides itself on the tiny details. Before dinner, the waiter brought a tray with limes, oranges, cucumber, and lemons to place in our water. “It’s really important for every element of the meal to be perfect, from start to finish. So when the guests arrive, we pay a lot of attention to water service. When they leave, they should be having a great cup of coffee and a spectacular dessert,” Mr. Ellman said. Mrs. Ellman, who worked for Neiman Marcus Corporate for six years, places high value on customer service. “All my prior expertise has been in retailing, which is very similar to hospitality, as the two are focused on the consumer,” Mrs. Ellman said. Mr. Ellman’s background provides business experience. He attended UT-Plan II, UT Law School, and then SMU’s Business School. According to Mr. Ellman, the first time he really felt Oak’s success was with the February four-star review from the Dallas Morning News. (Only six restaurants in Dallas received a four-star review in 2011.) “All of these compliments that we had gotten were finally in writing, in front of us, in a serious review. That was our first big review,” Mr. Ellman said. Now reviews are pouring in. Along with being the Best New Restaurant in D Magazine, Oak also won the Best of Big D: The Best Dessert for its Gianduja chocolate panna cotta. Reviews describe the service as “efficient” and the staff extremely “well-mannered.” This was definitely our experience at Oak. Walking out of the restaurant after the interview, someone from the valet service asked how the interview went. We were surprised that someone even knew we had an interview. The service and the Ellmans themselves were courteous, warm, and welcoming. We’re all Greenhill family.