Oakes & Evelyn Re-Opening (Montpelier, VT)

Oakes & Evelyn in Montpelier has been my favorite Vermont restaurant for the last few years. They were our first “real” post-pandemic fine dining experience back in May of 2021 shortly after they opened, and we had several visits there in 2022 and 2023. It had basically become our go-to for special occasions, well-worth the hour and change drive from our house in Grantham, and we really got to enjoy Chef Justin Dain’s crudos, tartares, and roasted meats.

Unfortunately, the Great Vermont Flood of 2023 arrived starting July 10th of this year, and Montpelier, whose downtown sits firmly in the flood plain of the Winooski River, found itself with a case of flooding even worse than Hurricane Irene back in 2011, filling most of downtown with water up to hip deep in places, and almost all of the restaurants and businesses in downtown found their basements flooded, their food stores destroyed, and their buildings badly flood-damaged. With a few lucky exceptions (such as Skinny Pancake, who sits a few feet above the rest of Main Street), pretty much every business in town had to embark on significant repair and refurbishment before they could reopen, most not re-opening until October at the earliest (and a few like Positive Pie down the street still are in the middle of repairs). Oakes & Evelyn wasn’t spared, and they had to basically rebuild the entire restaurant from approximately shoulder level down. In a heroic effort of rebuilding, Oakes & Evelyn (in many cases partnering with their neighbor Julio’s in the other half of the building) had to gut and rebuild while also trying to raise funds (including $37K from a GoFundMe effort). Their reopening was finally announced in mid-November, and I was happy to be able to grab a reservation for their re-opening night on November 22nd (the night before Thanksgiving). After a round of beers at nearby Three Penny Tap Room (themselves fully reopening just two weeks before), we headed over to Oakes & Evelyn to see how the re-opening was going.

Walking in the door, you can see the fruits of the Oakes & Eveyln rebuilding effort. Overall, the interior hasn’t changed from pre-flood aside from a slight upgrade in flooring and color scheme; the layout is basically the same, although the bar area seems to have been opened up a fair bit. This was a re-opening night; the unfortunate byproduct of a four-month closure is that much of the staff had to move on and get replaced by new folks, but we quickly met both our new-to-O&E server and their new bar manager.

Getting a table close to the kitchen, we looked over the cocktail list. Aside from a bit of a seasonal refresher, it’s basically the same, familiar set of crafted cocktails, most of them featuring Vermont products like those from Caledonia Spirits down the street. I went for the Knight’s Gambit, which is basically a negroni variant with Tomcat Gin, house amaro, Punt e Mes, and bergamot bitters. Nicely composed and richly favored, this is a great cocktail and I’m glad it’s still on the menu. Carol opted for another of our favorites, the Gods of Tin, with Barr Hill Gin, Luxardo Maraschino, Creme de Cacao, Creme de Violette, and lemon juice. So on the cocktail side, Oakes & Evelyn is still bringing their A game as one of the best cocktail bars in the region.

Looking over the appetizer menu, I was happy to see the typical list of bao buns, tartares, and crudos. As mentioned in my previous reviews, tartares made with local beef are a specialty of Justin’s, and I always order the current beef tartare. In this case, it was a local beef tartare with seared foie gras, crispy potato, quail egg, truffle aioli, and black garlic. The important thing with a good tartare is to focus on the beef without burying it in other flavors and textures, and this was perfect: great tender beef, perfectly chopped, and served with just enough aioli, black garlic, and quail egg to give it a bit of yolk for moisture and just a bit of herbal seasoning. The accompanying foie gras and potato were perfectly seared as well, letting each bite have a bit of potato start, a bit of fat from the foie, and a bit of seasoned beef. A winner all-around.

We also went for a crudo, in this case a yellowfin tuna crudo with nuoc cham, jalapeno & cucumber relish, and gooseberries. To me, one of the best combinations of crudo/sushi flavors is the combination of a good yellowfin tuna combined with thinly-sliced jalapeno; if I see this on a menu, I almost always have to order it. The version here was good: the yellowfin nicely prepped and sliced, the jalapeno and cucumber relish adding both herbal and pepper notes, the nuoc cham adding just a bit of a nice umami, and the gooseberries a bit of tartness. Texturally and flavorwise, this was a great crudo.

When it came to selecting a main course, this is the one place we noticed a very minor shift as Oakes & Evelyn re-opens: at least for now, the entree selection is a bit more limited, with a narrower choice of proteins. But we almost always go for roasted meat when we come to Oakes & Evelyn, and this time we decided to go for the grilled ribeye for two. Served up as a rather large ribeye, topped with crumbled Hill Blue cheese, and served with charred broccolini, heirloom carrots, truffled potato, and pickled herbs. Everything here was prepared perfectly; the ribeye a tender and perfect medium-rare (if I have a regret, it’s that I didn’t adjust the dish to get a better photo), with the softly-melted Hill Blue Cheese a nice woodier blue cheese that nicely rounded out the flavor. The broccolini, always a favorite on previous visits, was the same perfectly-seasoned and crisped greens as earlier visits, and the heirloom carrots and truffled potato nicely done. An excellent dish, and every bit the quality I had previously gotten on previous pre-flood visits.

For dessert, we opted for the slightly unusual Bayley Hazen and Baked Chocolate Mousse. Served up as baked portions of both the chocolate and blue cheese mousses with cherries and syrup on the side, this was a really interesting dish, with a texture more like cheesecake than a mousse, and subtle flavors. Enjoyable without being overly sweet.

In short, the efforts of Oakes & Evelyn’s staff in re-building and re-opening the restaurant have been tremendously successful. While they are still ramping up reservations (they were doing a limited number of tables during re-opening as they train up the new staff and get used to operating again), and the menu is slightly pared back, it’s basically the exact same experience and quality that I’ve always gotten on previous visits, and it’s wonderful to see them back, and still bringing their A game. I hope I can revisit them a few times in 2024.

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