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Inventive restraint

Fruit- and vegetable-forward Oren sates without saturating

Oren’s ricotta gnudi

Michelle Pollard

The moment you walk into Oren—Chef Matthew Amberg’s progressive Brookside eatery—there is an appreciable lack of ostentation. Absent from the dining room are the chintzy gimmicks that too often adorn the walls of restaurants designed to trend. While mood and appetite are easily manipulated by vibrant colors, art, photography, music, and even TVs, Oren eschews unnecessary distractions in order to keep the focus on what you (and your senses) arrived for—the food.

Basking in minimalism, Oren’s dining room is a blank slate of confidence. The color scheme is overwhelmingly white and the walls are mostly bare. In keeping up with appearances, the menu has also been judiciously scaled back. At a mere three pages, the selection of food and drinks can be perused without causing option paralysis or eyestrain.

As the website and staff will tell you, Oren is a fruit- and vegetable-forward establishment, and the lion’s share of the offerings adhere to this principle. The menu, which is seasonal and shifting, is split into four sections: To Begin, Salads & Composed Vegetables, Pastas & Grains, and Mains. 

While the Mains section features options for unwavering carnivores, only two items in the other sections were not vegetarian-friendly: the Ichabod Flats Oysters (served with cantaloupe, seabeans, green tomato, and Chardonnay vinegar; $12) and the Risotto “Au Poivre” (white pepper, pecorino cheese, and veal jus; $13). The remaining dishes represented a cornucopia of intriguing vegetable preparations including gem lettuce tempura ($8), summer squash with pumpkin seed salsa verde and labne ($8), charred broccoli with cashews and sour cream ($8), fingerling potatoes with leek-mayo and Aleppo pepper ($8), and ricotta gnudi with mint and peas ($16).

My dining partner J. and I started our meal with the oysters, broccoli, summer squash, risotto, and tapioca crackers with fennel ($6). The tapioca crackers were a marvel. Airy and kissed with spice, these addictive crisps had the appearance of sea foam, the crunch of a popped chip, and an aroma that brought back childhood memories of carnival mini-donuts and funnel cakes.

The broccoli and summer squash offerings were both expertly prepared, retaining substantial crunch and flavor. The salsa verde (think a more rustic pesto) ladled over the squash medley was a toothsome delight, but of the two the broccoli was the clear winner. The charred florets had a hint of cruciferous bitterness that contrasted nicely with the tempering sour cream, and the verdant brightness of raw oregano and flat-leaf parsley, herbs that are usually either cooked to death or minced into obscurity, lifted the broccoli to new heights.

The Risotto “Au Poivre”—made with Carnaroli rice—was magnificently cheesy and offered an unparalleled risotto experience. Compared to the more common Arborio rice, Carnaroli grains are longer, have more starch, and are noticeably plumper. Oren’s dish delivers an umami wallop of pecorino cheese and veal jus. It’s a delicious but somewhat heavy dish that, on hot summer days, is best shared.

When the oyster and seabean (or, drift seed) dish arrived, J. and I were excited to dive in. The pucker of green tomato and sweetness from the cantaloupe worked nicely with the brininess of the shellfish, and the Chardonnay vinegar paired well with the fruit, but the vinegar and the oysters seemed at odds with one another. While acid and oysters are a classic combination, here the oyster flavor was almost completely eclipsed by tartness, which left the dish eating more like a savory fruit salad than a seafood appetizer.

After finishing our small plates, J. and I jumped into the mains. The fennel and coriander spiced lamb loin ($39) with asparagus, curry rice, and rhubarb-lamb jus was tender, well rested, and nicely balanced. The barramundi (a species of sea bass) with quinoa, ajo blanco, pickled green strawberries, and charred avocado ($33) read like the most inventive dish on the menu and demanded we sample it. Arriving at the table in a waft of butter, the skin on the fish was crispy, the fish steak flakey and moist, and the acid from the pickled green strawberry cut through the garlicky ajo blanco and the fatty avocado in a revelatory way.

With dishes that don’t leave you feeling leaden, thanks to Amberg’s focus on fresh ingredients and minimal use of refined products, Oren is prime summer fare. And the unique-to-the-restaurant drink menu only provides further evidence that Oren is a great summer haunt.

Bar Manager T. Read Richards (formerly of Valkyrie) has selected an assortment of wines from the world over, but the adventurous mixed drinks are where Richards’ talents are most apparent. The eclectic spritzes (blackberry, strawberry rhubarb, kumquat, and cherry; $11) all feature under-appreciated European herbal liqueurs and amaros (bittering spirits), perfect for cooling off on Oren’s outdoor patio. For those who prefer sour flavors to bitter ones, the Grace ($12) is a must. A blend of tequila, mezcal, and cardamom, this margarita-chai hybrid is a strange and mercurial combination that, like much of the menu at Oren, will leave you satisfied, a little contemplative, and, most importantly, curious as to what Amberg and Richards will cook up next.

Tues.–Thurs. 5 p.m.–10 p.m.
Fri.–Sat. 5 p.m.–11 p.m.
Sun. 10 a.m.–2 p.m.
3909 S. Peoria Ave. | orenrestaurant.com

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