Oakleaf creates memories to savor

Review originally published 11/23/2012

By Greg Cox

Driving home from Pittsboro after dining at Oakleaf on a Saturday night in late summer, I couldn’t stop thinking about my dessert. Partly, no doubt, because I’d never had steamed lemon buttermilk pudding before. And partly because the presentation – concentric circles of vermillion macerated raspberries and pristine white plate rim framing a glistening dome of pudding, yellow as the yolk of a newly laid egg from a free range hen – made for an unforgettable image. But mostly I was savoring the afterglow of supple textures and tangy-sweet flavors.

Not that my dessert was the only memorable dish that night. Judging by the satisfied smile on her face, I’d guess my wife was recalling her local peach and blackberry cobbler with similar fondness.

The entire meal, for that matter, was a procession of memorable dishes. House-smoked trout, for starters, served over buttermilk blini and garnished with a kaleidoscope of capers, chopped chives and hard-boiled egg, and lemon-tinged creme fraiche.

A first-course order of duck confit produced an entire leg-thigh quarter, its flesh succulent under a crisp mahogany skin. A bed of barely wilted baby kale in an orange balsamic sauce played counterpoint to the rich bass notes of the bird.

A flawless filet of pan-seared North Carolina pink snapper, beached on a drift of delicate young mustard greens and shiitakes, signaled owner/chef Brendan Cox’s winning way with seafood. Another entree featuring caramelized scallops on a bed of local sweet corn “risotto” resoundingly seconded the motion.

A native of Washington, D.C., Cox worked in that city’s restaurants for 15 years (including a stint under the acclaimed Todd Gray at Equinox) before setting out on his own. He and his wife, Leslie, settled on Pittsboro, where they bought a farmstead with the idea of supplying produce for their restaurant. They’re already raising chickens and keeping bees, and have started a raised-bed garden of herbs and vegetables.

The couple opened Oakleaf in May in Chatham Mills, a 1920s textile mill converted to a retail and office complex – which, conveniently, is also home to an organic co-op grocery and a weekly farmers market that stock much of the restaurant’s pantry.

The chef translates all this agricultural goodness into a seasonally evolving menu (updated daily on the restaurant’s Facebook page) that is likely to be substantially different from one visit to the next. Regardless of season, your meal is sure to be a memorable one.

By the time I returned to Oakleaf for a second visit, two months after the first, the sweet corn, baby greens and heirloom tomatoes of summer had given way to fall’s acorn squash, brussels sprouts and Lady apples.

Crostini smeared with a rich duck liver mousse garnished a voluptuous soup of Covington sweet potatoes and pecans. Delicately crisp fried Chesapeake oysters with sauce remoulade and fines herbes were sublime. A warm salad of roasted parsnips, glazed mushrooms and thick slices of grilled applewood-smoked bacon delivered bone-deep satisfaction.

As did an entree featuring toothsome shreds of braised heritage pork, molded into cylindrical towers on a foundation of sweet-and-sour red cabbage. And a chewy-tender strip steak of grass-fed, grain-finished local beef.

The apple crostata I ordered for dessert, with a cardamom-wine syrup and cinnamon chantilly cream perfuming but not overwhelming, was delightful. But I confess it was the few bites I managed to snag of my wife’s dessert — maple-mascarpone cheesecake with pistachio brittle — that kept replaying in my mind on the drive home this time.

Dining room decor is an earth-tone pastiche of reclaimed heart pine floors, exposed posts and beams, and walls of brick and zinc (with a small, well-stocked zinc bar to match), warmed in the early evening by sunlight filtered through expansive windows. With subtly colorful accents including pen-and-ink drawings of oak leaves, and orchids on a large central farm table, the look is at once rustic and sophisticated — a perfect match for the food.

The move to North Carolina was a homecoming of sorts for Leslie Cox, a Sanford native and self-described “recovering lawyer” who now runs the front of the house, setting the tone for a wait staff that’s commendably well-trained.

Oakleaf is a good 40 minutes from much of the Triangle, but it’s worth the drive. Besides, you can be pretty sure you’ll have pleasant memories to entertain you all the way home.

Note: Oakleaf will be closed for lunch Friday and reopen for dinner.


480 Hillsborough St., Pittsboro

Cuisine: contemporary
Prices: Entrees $17 to $25
Atmosphere: rustic meets sophisticated in a converted textile mill
Noise level: moderate
Service: well-trained and eager to please
Recommended: menu changes daily; take your pick
Open: Lunch Monday-Friday,
dinner Monday-Saturday,
brunch Saturday
Reservations: recommended
Other: full bar; accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection; parking in lot.

 We rank restaurants in five categories: ***** Extraordinary. **** Excellent. *** Above average. **Average. * Fair.