It was heartbreaking when a fire shuttered Alameda's American Oak last December. In addition to the structural damage, the flames wiped out co-owner Melanie Hartman's impressive collection of whiskeys, ryes and bourbon. The future looked grim.

But the whiskey lounge and restaurant has rebounded beautifully, with a fresh new look, a new chef -- Harte Singer -- and the same appealing mix that made this gastropub so irresistible the first time around: fresh local fare, handcrafted cocktails, rye flights and seamless service.

It feels so wrong to say this, but that fire, traumatic as it was, has made American Oak even better. We're going to avoid all the cornball cliches and phoenix metaphors here and simply say: We are loving this place even more now than we did the last time around.

In its original incarnation, American Oak felt like it was still figuring itself out. The food was great and the cocktails terrific -- Hartman won the 2012 Best Martini in the East Bay contest at the Lafayette Park Hotel. But the front of the place was a dark whiskey lounge with an antique saloon-style bar, the back a modern, polished restaurant with moody lighting -- and the website looked like a blast to a Wild West past.

Now, the front and back halves of the new AO are a graceful whole, with warm orange and cream-patterned walls surrounding that gorgeous antique bar, the occasional whiskey barrel motif and a seamless segue to the chic dining room. It's modern, mellow and inviting. The menu is more focused and better executed. And Hartman is back behind the bar mixing handcrafted cocktails and pouring more than 100 whiskeys, bourbons and ryes.


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There's a nice array of starters, ranging from fried oysters ($7) to roasted squash soup ($9) and chicory salad ($10) with fuyu persimmons, Point Reyes blue cheese and candied walnuts. The burrata and toast ($7) was decadent and lovely, the rich creaminess of the cheese offset by a peppercress salad. And the wood-fire roasted Brussels sprouts ($6) were to die for, thanks to lashings of lemon, chilis and, our server confided, a bit of bacon. You couldn't see the bacon, and it didn't register on the palate as bacon, but it added an indefinable depth of flavor.

The wood oven offerings also include a roasted Mary's organic chicken ($24) with sweet potato puree and bourbon cranberry sauce; a mac and cheese ($7), with a bacon option; and a braised pork ribs and cannellini beans dish dubbed "Pork & Beans" ($18).

There was temptation enough right there, but the regular entree menu offers even more in the form of P.E.I. mussels and fries ($13), a grilled hanger steak with creamy grits ($22), a Kobe beef burger ($15) and seasonal specials. The hanger steak was tender and smoky and accompanied by a smoked onion relish and earthy mushroom jus that melded into a harmonious whole.

The Navy Smash is seen at American Oak in Alameda, Calif., on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013. The cocktail contains Martin Millers Westbourne Strength London Dry
The Navy Smash is seen at American Oak in Alameda, Calif., on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013. The cocktail contains Martin Millers Westbourne Strength London Dry Gin, muddled lemon, orange, mint, simple syrup and Peychaud's Bitters. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group) ( JANE TYSKA )

The burger was my favorite thing on the old menu, and it was every bit as good now. Tucked amid a flourish of crisp, addictive fries, the burger was topped with tangy pickled onions, melty cheddar cheese, butter lettuce and whatever other embellishments -- bacon, Point Reyes blue cheese or a fried egg ($2 extra for each) -- you might desire. The bun, like many of the breads on the American Oak menu, comes from Alameda's Feel Good Bakery.

American Oak's locavore focus shapes its small dessert menu as well. The same bakery supplies the chocolate ganache tart ($7), and the walnut bread to accompany the cheese plate, which includes Point Reyes blue, Bellwether Carmody and Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog, drizzled with Alameda honey ($7 for one cheese, $15 for all three). The other dessert options are a salute to Alameda's Tucker Ice Cream -- a root beer float ($6) and ice cream sundaes. The latter are $4 per scoop, drizzled with your choice of some very fun toppings, such as wood oven-roasted apples with cardamom ($2) or sea salt and olive oil ($2).

Or a shot of Buffalo Trace bourbon ($3.50). Of course.

American Oak

* * *

WHERE: 2319 Santa Clara Ave., Alameda
CONTACT: 510-521-5862, http://americanoakalameda.com
HOURS: 5 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays through
Thursdays, 5 to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
CUISINE: Gastropub
PRICES: $$-$$$
VEGETARIAN: Mac and cheese and some salad options
BEVERAGES: Handcrafted cocktails, wines by the bottle or glass, and an impressive whiskey list
RESERVATIONS:
Accepted
NOISE LEVEL: Medium loud
PARKING: Street
parking
KIDS: The menu includes kid-size mac and cheese, burgers and chicken strips ($6 to $8).
PLUSES: Fresh, seasonal food, great cocktails and rye flights
DATE OPENED: Reopened in May

Policy

We strive to remain anonymous. This newspaper pays for all meals.

Ratings

Restaurants are rated on a scale of one to four, with four representing a truly extraordinary experience for that type of restaurant.

Price code

$ Most entrees under $10
$$ Most entrees under $20
$$$ Most entrees under $30
$$$$ Most entrees under $40