I have a confession: I attended Live Oak's first ever brunch service by accident. The newly-opened lowcountry restaurant occupies the corner lot at Commonwealth and Monroe previously held by Monroe's an American Trattoria, and if you live in Del Ray, you've probably already heard about this place. It has been hailed as one of the most anticipated openings in the area in years, and has generated a considerable amount of hype over the past few weeks, almost always associated with the phrase "is it open yet?" Admittedly, a certain amount of the confusion is understandable. The restaurant's website is poorly indexed, and can pretty much only be located by navigating through their facebook page. For all the buildup, there has been little actual promotion other than word of mouth. I was under the (mistaken) impression that it had opened mid-last week, when my partner and I walked past what must have been a soft open. So this morning when we woke up late and too lazy to cook, it was our first thought for brunch. Did I mention it's within walking distance from our house? Sundays are lazy days.
First things first: the coffee is good. We walked in around 10:30am, after noting a sign in the window that assured us that they had opened half an hour prior. A smiling hostess greeted us at the front of a mostly empty dining room, and asked us if we had a reservation. I hope she didn't catch the look we gave each other. Uh, no. We don't have a reservation. We'll take any of the 15 open tables, please. We were seated right away. Our waiter was a French gentleman who later told us that he had worked with Live Oak's chef at another restaurant. He bragged on the boh and foh alike, saying that most had a long tenure in the service industry and came fully trained. His comments were reflected in our experience- there was nothing awkward or bumbling about any of the staff we interacted with, and our water glasses must have been refilled 20 times in our hour-long brunch. I started with a coffee and my partner with a grapefruit-lime-habanero cocktail that sounded too complex to work, but was actually delicious. The heat level was understated, and balanced the acidity of the citrus.
Glancing over the menu, I was happy to see that they had my go-to omelette (ham, cheese, and onion) as one of their offerings. My southern heart was made happy, because that exact omelette is the standard I use to measure new breakfast/brunch places. Their version was, of course, "elevated" with goat cheese and Virginia ham, and came with a fruit cup. I ordered that without hesitation, and my partner eagerly ordered their chicken and buttermilk biscuits. As soon as our waiter left, we had second thoughts about not asking for an order of their chocolate beignets, but I suppose we'll just have to come back and get them next time. While we waited, we took in the classy but uncomplicated remodel. Lots of brick, wood, and light colored walls. I had the wrong lens to get a good picture, but hopefully it's better than nothing:
Our food arrived after about 15-20 minutes, and I'm sorry to say that the presentation was underwhelming. They either need smaller plates, bigger portions, or some kind of garnish. Not that there wasn't enough food to fill us up, but the biscuits looked lonely on the plate, and the fruit cup barely redeemed my solitary omelette. Hopefully they'll find their groove in a few more weekends, but this aspect of the meal definitely had an opening day feel to it. There were a few more quirks like this- no pepper at the table, but fresh pepper wasn't offered before the waiter left, so we had to flag him down. There were a few big, clattering dropped plates, which we attributed to opening-morning jitters. The light fixtures at the table are movable, and while that's wonderfully fun, I nearly broke ours by fidgeting with it.
Luckily, the food itself transcended the other missteps. I've never had goat's cheese in a ham omelette, but I'm not sure I'll ever be able to go without it again. Creamy, tangy, and savory, I'm in love with this omelette combo, which was greatly improved by the bite of the chive garnish. I also snuck a forkful off my partner's plate and I'm happy to report that Live Oak's gravy is out of this world. Oh, and there was delicious chicken and biscuits under there too! The food was very classically DC- high quality, simple foods, executed well. I left the table with a few questions about lowcountry food, but those are thoughts for another rant.
While clearing our plates, the waiter not-so-casually mentioned dessert. I'm usually quick to decline that offer, but I adore a good Southern dessert, so we played along, and it was the best decision of the morning.
I ordered the blueberry buckle, though hindsight is 20/20 and I already know I'm coming back specifically for that layer cake. My dining partner is a sucker for strawberry shortcake, so Live Oaks version, served with chantilly cream and studded with cocoa nibs, was his choice. The wait for these to come out was a tiny bit long (another 10-15 minutes) but well worth the wait. In the interim, owner Tim Irwin made a point to stop by our table and check in. He had an excited energy, and I could tell he was doing 10 different things at once in his head, but he listened closely to our feedback. Live Oak is a new venture, and I appreciate that they're still willing to change and improve to suit the community's needs. He left just before we received our desserts (11:30am-ish), and by that time, with the restaurant about half-full, the noise level had risen considerably. We weren't shouting to hear each other, but my partner and I both noticed the change in volume. The building's high, recessed ceilings are gorgeous, but they may prove acoustically problematic on a busy Saturday night.
The desserts were so beautiful, though, that we immediately forgot all about the noise. Look at that buckle! I could write a sonnet about that buckle. Sweet, but not too sweet. Dense, but not heavy. Fruity, but still just slightly savory. It's my new favorite food. I was too infatuated to even try the strawberries, but my partner reported that the shortcake was unfortunately too savory to play well as a dessert. Meanwhile, I was (almost literally) licking my plate on the other side of the table.
Overall, Live Oak has a lot of growing to do, but I absolutely see promise here. I hope they'll get on top of their marketing and promotion, because they don't deserve to be Del Ray's best kept secret.