Oak Hill Cafe
Photo by Will Crooks

“Tomatillo Mosaic.” The first two words in the description of the Radish & Roe small plate on Oak Hill Cafe’s new dinner menu begged an explanation that would arrive in a small hand-thrown gray bowl, layers of flavors, textures, and shapes stacked one on top of the other.

The foundation was a pumpkin seed creme followed by quarter-inch spheres of pear, bits of skin-on plums, thinly sliced radishes topped with pale green tomatillos arranged in a rosette, and finally, a quenelle-shaped center of paddlefish roe.

This combination of ingredients is likely unfamiliar territory for even a seasoned Greenville diner, yet the flavors strike a familiar chord — the pumpkin seeds, though in a hummus-like form, are reminiscent of fall nights snacking on the roasted remnants of the carved jack-o’-lantern, the radishes freshly picked from the home garden just before they turn bitter.

Very little about Oak Hill dinners, set to launch Sept. 6, will be expected, with the raw ingredients pushed and stretched to take on new forms through dehydration, emulsion, and many other experimental techniques, yet the flavors of each component in its most natural form will shine through.

Oak Hill Café, which opened late June at 2510 Poinsett Highway, is a partnership between Costa Rican chef David Porras and Lori Nelsen, a retired lab manager at Furman University in the earth and environmental sciences/sustainability sciences department. Their garden partners — Chris Miller (That Garden Guy) and Aaron von Frank (Tyrant Farms) — designed a garden and greenhouse on the back acre of the property that provides much of the produce used in the restaurant.

Together, in a kitchen teeming with former Culinary Institute of America students hungry to learn from Porras, they are creating a unique addition to Greenville’s dining repertoire.

The name “cafe” is fitting for the daytime options such as hearty sandwiches and soups, bowls of grains and greens, huevos rancheros, and coffee service. But come dinner service, the menu split into small plates, shared plates, and entrees will read more elevated with an element of surprise in each dish.

See photos of inside Oak Hill Cafe

Take the Pimento Cheese Spheres. The description says “Pimento Infused Olive Oil, Crostini.” Simple enough. What arrives at the table is a short mason jar filled with spheres of pillowy cheese, submerged in oil, that have taken on an uncharacteristically light texture. Upon tasting, it mimics cotton candy, melting before you can even swallow.

A rotating list of desserts hits all the usual categories — chocolate, fruit, ice cream — with the Oak Hill signature intrigue, like Orange & Miso Ice Cream with black sesame and roasted sesame oil.

Some dishes are as simple as a few components with a hint of salt, like the burrata with basil flower, basil oil, and pickled peaches. But the preparation techniques used and combination of flavors create an intellectual, sensory experience opposite the habit of mindless eating. 

Starting out, dinner will be offered two nights a week — Friday and Saturday — while the kitchen and service staff acclimate to the new format. Eventually, it will move to Wednesday-Saturday dinner service. 

Like the food menu, the beverage menu has a few of its own surprises, such as a gin, green chartreuse, and green bell pepper cocktail named Ring My Bell or the Espresso Martini with bourbon, Cynar, and honey. With three or four ingredients apiece, the cocktails also represent well-balanced simplicity.

The end goal of Oak Hill’s dinner service is the 14-course tasting menu that will be offered once a month by reservation only. Simultaneously, the bar will offer its own tasting menu of three cocktails paired with dishes. 

Oak Hill is open six days a week (closed Sundays). Visit oakhillcafe.com for current hours and to make a reservation.

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