Solid Oak

A lbert Greenwood and Craig Hotchkiss, co-owners of the recently opened Oak Haven Table and Bar, a “farm-to-table,” oakwood-furnished, American-style gastropub in East Rock, could claim their friendship is a matter of fate. Their mothers, friends who grew up together in West Haven, later lived across the street from one another as adults.

So it was that “I had no choice but to be his friend,” Greenwood jokes, referring to Hotchkiss. At the age of 16, with loans from their parents, the two started their first business together: A&C Entertainment, a DJ service. Just a few months later, the duo became the exclusive Friday night entertainment at Club 141, a former all-ages haunt in Milford.

The business continued throughout their time in college—Greenwood at UNH, Hotchkiss at Quinnipiac—but at 21, their interests diverged. Greenwood headed for Mohegan Sun, putting his Hospitality Management degree to use. Hotchkiss took a position at HSBC, where he stayed for four years.

Then fate re-intervened. In 2008, when the stumbling economy threatened their jobs, the pair decided to head to Miami together to look for new work. “A perfect time to relocate to sunnier pastures,” Greenwood says. Hotchkiss scored a posh gig as the Versace Mansion sommelier, while Greenwood worked at Michael’s Genuine, an award-winning farm-to-table establishment in Miami’s design district.

One day in 2010, the kindred entrepreneurial spirits found themselves sketching out plans for their own coffee and wine bar. They scouted locations in Miami and New York City but had trouble finding a spot that felt right. Chief among the requirements for the new venture was a location in a neighborhood that had a strong, established community. And then it hit them: Upper State Street in New Haven.

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“The biggest thing for me is that everything has been here a long time,” Greenwood says. “Portofino’s has been here a long time, Modern Apizza has been around forever. Dempsey’s, Christopher Martin’s—these are places that have been here well over a decade. And State Street is sort of like a village. It’s got all kinds of great stuff.”

Greenwood and Hotchkiss secured their spot at 932 State, and by then their idea had evolved to a full dining experience. With Greenwood’s years logged at Michael’s Genuine and Hotchkiss’s experience with boutique wines and craft beer, it just made sense.

The focus at Oak Haven is undoubtedly on ingredients. The kitchen buys from farms like Bishop’s Orchards, farm stands in Ledyard and Bethany and many of New Haven’s farmers’ markets. But they get even more local than that. Much of the restaurant’s herbs  including sage and thyme, as well as the habaneros used in a delicious house-made oil, are grown in Greenwood’s home garden.

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Dishes with minimalist names evince modern American flair. The Chicken ($16), organic and free-range, comes with two drumsticks served over steaming, roasted market vegetables and quinoa. The skin was crispy, the insides juicy and flavorful. On the day I sampled, the dish came with squash, carrots, onion and asparagus, but those vegetables change depending on what looks good at the farms and markets his kitchen staff frequents.

Other standouts include the Yellowfin Tuna small plate ($8) and the Pork Belly medium plate ($13). The tuna was melt-in-your-mouth fresh, topped with large crystals of Hawaiian black sea salt and the aforementioned habanero oil, which delivers a quick and satisfying smack of heat. It’s garnished with fresh watermelon (or sometimes cantaloupe) and baby wild arugula.

The star for me, though, was the Berkshire pork belly. It’s a 4-ounce hunk, “beer-braised and lacquered” to add a light, sweet sauce. The meat falls apart at the touch of a fork. It’s served over bitter greens, and a poached egg, rolled in breadcrumbs and fried. Decadent and delicious.

The drinks are not to be missed. Aside from the wide array of small-label wines and craft beer, Oak Haven offers cocktails made with house-aged liquors, which cool their heels inside oak barrels for 6 to 10 weeks before getting mixed into cocktails.

The barreling, Greenwood tells me, enhances the spirit’s aroma and flavor profile, a notion which invites a chemistry lesson: inside the barrel, the liquor undergoes a slight oxidization, converting some of the alcohol from ethanol to acetaldehyde, which gives the liquor a light, nutty aroma. Barreling can also make a spirit smoother: from the oak, spirits with a higher acidity extract hemicellulose, which reduces the alcohol’s sugar content, making for a smoother taste. Meanwhile, the barrels sit at what’s called a “level three char,” meaning the wood has been charred for a little under a minute. This process brings out additional flavors from the wood—vanilla, honey, a touch of smoke—and gets them into the spirits.

And gets New Haven into the spirit. When a new business understands aging this well, it’s easy to imagine it living to a ripe, old age of its own.

Oak Haven Table & Bar
932 State St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Sat 5pm-close, Sun 11am-close
(203) 996-1842

Written and photographed by Jake Goldman.

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Jake is a writer and a teacher whose fiction and non-fiction can be found in Abe's Penny, The Huffington Post, The New York Press and elsewhere. For a spell, he made a living writing 'comedic ringtones,' which meant hundreds of really bad cellphone-related knock-knock jokes and puns. He lives in New Haven with his wife and cats.

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