Tucked in a corner of an older shopping center in Ellicott City, from the outside, White Oak Tavern is unassuming and nearly anonymous.
But that's just the facade. Inside, White Oak (named for Maryland's state tree) is warm and food-centric, with an impressive craft beer selection and a well-executed menu that shines a light on local farmers.
Scene & Decor White Oak's space is open and airy, with a large bar to the right, a dining room to the left and, in keeping with the "oak" theme, wood everywhere, from the floors to the benches to the walls.
When we arrived, around six on a Saturday evening, the bar was crowded and the dining room was rapidly filling up with couples and groups of friends. After a brief wait, we settled into a table in the corner of the lively dining room.
Appetizers White Oak is justly proud of its farm-to-table ethos and the kitchen does a good job using local ingredients in dishes that are creative but familiar enough to feel appropriate in the restaurant's casual environment.
A salad of lightly battered and fried oyster mushroom fritters ($8), served over frisee with feta and house-made hot sauce, was lovely and surprising — much more sophisticated than the plate of fried mushrooms we were expecting. The dish would have benefited from a quick shake of salt (no salt or pepper sat on the tables at White Oak), but that seemed like a petty complaint, considering how well-constructed and executed the plate was, otherwise.
Two triangular slices of cheddar corn bread ($5) were great as they were. Topped with dollops of honey butter, the corn bread was moist and sweet with just enough salty cheese to balance the honey.
Entrees White Oak's menu will evolve seasonally; we caught the tail end of the winter menu during our visit. The chicken paprikash ($20) won't be available on the spring menu. That makes some sense, since it's a hearty Hungarian dish perfect for chilly weather, but the braised chicken, served with oyster mushrooms and potatoes in a rich paprika sauce, would work just as well on cool spring nights.
As with the mushroom fritters, a dash of salt would have made the sauce even better, but the seasoning was a small quibble given the sauce's subtle flavors and silky texture.
The brisket entree ($22) — which will be available through the spring — was even more satisfying. Several thick slices of brisket, smoky and seasoned with a coffee-based rub, were drizzled with tangy-spicy apple cider barbecue sauce and served alongside chunky garlic mashed potatoes and braised kale.
Brisket can be tricky; it's often drier than we like. But well-seasoned and cooked nicely, the brisket plate was simple but delicious, putting the spotlight on high quality ingredients.
Drinks White Oak Tavern bills itself as a craft-beer powerhouse; their beer list is impressive and regularly changes. The food menu suggests pairings for each dish, sticking with types of beer rather than specific brands.
With the brisket, White Oak recommended stout or porter; we opted for the Yards Love Stout ($6.42), a rich, creamy beer from Philadelphia. The match was a good one, with the beer's coffee undertones playing nicely with the brisket's coffee rub.
A selection from the cocktail menu, the caramel apple mule ($8.26) was less successful. The caramel vodka and ginger beer combination sounded promising but the drink was too strong and lacked depth.
Dessert Even the desserts at White Oak are boozy, and that's a plus. The stout chess pie ($7) was sweet and dense, and homemade ginger snaps served with bourbon-spiked ice cream, dubbed "cookies and cream" ($6), were pretty, tasty and even beer friendly.
Service Except for an odd moment of hesitation when we first entered — the hostess seemed unsure about whether we'd be up for what turned out to be a 10-minute wait — our interactions with the staff were pleasant and efficient. Food arrived in a timely fashion and we never went long without full drinks.
By the time we left, every table in White Oak's dining room was packed and several groups seemed to be settling in for the night. It's that kind of place, we thought. Where ordering rounds of beer is just as satisfying as ordering rounds of food.
White Oak Tavern
Back story: Brother and sister team Clare and Peter Frey, along with friends and former Bare Bones Grill and Brewery coworkers Greg Mason and Noel Johnson, teamed up to open White Oak Tavern in the Enchanted Forest Shopping Center last January. The restaurant boasts an impressive selection of craft beers and a casual, farm-to-table menu that is well executed and interesting.
Parking: Lot in front
Signature dish: White Oak Tavern's brisket is some of the juiciest we've tried. Topped with tangy apple cider barbecue sauce and served with braised kale and chunky mashed potatoes, the dish is a hearty, satisfying and sophisticated take on barbecue.
TVs: Four for viewing (plus several listing the restaurant's beer selection)
Where: Enchanted Forest Shopping Center, 10030 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City
Contact: 410-680-8974; thewhiteoaktavern.com
Open: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday
Credit Cards: All major
Reservations: Accepted for parties of four or more
Bottom line: Craft beer and thoughtfully updated interpretations of American classics in a charmingly rustic space