Being known more for barbecue, beef and chicken fried steak, Oklahoma isn’t exactly a capital of haute cuisine. It’s not that gourmet food is new to the Sooner State by any means – the famed dining rooms of the Skirvin and Mayo hotels would have held their own with any in New York City during their heyday, and many wonderful chefs have cooked here since – but fine dining in Oklahoma was often thought of as something to be enjoyed by the wealthy or just for special occasions.
A renewed interest in gourmet food has conquered the nation, and while we’ll defend our barbecue with our last breath, Oklahoma is firmly on board. With new energy in our cities and a new place in the national spotlight, Oklahoma chefs are satisfying the demand for more than just meat and potatoes and proving that gourmet is for every day. We look at the evolution gourmet cuisine in our state with a history lesson from one of the pioneers of modern gourmet cooking in Oklahoma, and we meet six chefs – several veterans themselves – who are among those making our culinary scene worthy of national attention. – Thom Golden
A History Lesson
Scroll through any top 10 list of the best dining spots in the nation and you may not find Oklahoma … yet. Oklahoma fine dining, once perhaps a contradiction in terms, is arriving on the national scene with a vengeance. Many local chefs believe the state is experiencing a food revolution, one that is luring more foodie pilgrims from around the U.S. in search of the next holy edible grail.
“True fine dining is the perfect combination of food, service and atmosphere,” says Kurt Fleischfresser, executive chef and partner at Western Concepts Restaurants and Irma’s Burger Shacks. “There are restaurants that have some combination of these, but a balance among all three sets fine dining apart.”
Fleischfresser cooked his way through top restaurants, from Chicago to Phoenix, before landing at the iconic Coach House in Oklahoma City in 1988. The restaurant, which has played host to such fine-dining super stars as Oklahoma native Rick Bayless, as well as Jacques Pepin and Hubert Keller, to name a few, was simply the first step in building a local dining empire driven by Fleischfresser’s world-renowned culinary creativity and expertise.
When Fleischfresser began cooking in the state, the broadening of Oklahoma’s horizons was just beginning.
“When I first arrived back in Oklahoma, there were some exciting changes happening,” he says. “Liquor by the drink was approved (without that the prospect of opening a restaurant in Oklahoma was kind of bleak), Bricktown and Remington Park were starting up and Oklahomans seemed ready to become a quality ‘big’ city.” However, Fleischfresser says, there were still plenty of challenges to catching up with the rest of the nation, such as lack of availability for fresh seafood and unique produce.
As more top-notch restaurants have arrived in the state, he says the environment for fine dining has evolved.
“I think the dining public changed,” he says. “We have always had a well-traveled customer base in Oklahoma that knows what great food and service is, but they weren’t looking for it here. Once restaurants started to show potential for quality food and service, Oklahomans knew what it was and embraced it. The local chefs and producers followed.”
Fleischfresser says the element focusing the nation’s taste buds on Oklahoma gourmet is the quality of local chefs, plain and simple.
“Oklahoma chefs have always done well when they move to bigger markets, and I think people are realizing that we are cooking real food here,” he says. “We are not as interested in shocking people with the names or ingredients of our dishes. We are cooking solid, tasty food. Who doesn’t like that?”
While cooking styles, backgrounds and creative visions may vary, Oklahoma chefs seem to agree with Fleischfresser when he says the best thing about the state’s food world is “the people: The guests in our restaurants, the people that work with us and the people who produce our food. It’s our greatest asset,” he says.
Chef and Owner, Juniper Restaurant & Martini Lounge and PRHYME: Downtown Steakhouse
After spending six months under the tutelage of mentors Ouida and Robert Merrifield at the storied Polo Grill, Tulsa native Justin Thompson went on to open seven restaurants in the Tulsa area, including his two current endeavors, Juniper and PRHYME Steakhouse. Both restaurants have enjoyed enormous popularity, but Thompson doesn’t plan to rest; he is currently working on opening his third eatery in downtown Tulsa and spends much of his time and resources on local philanthropic efforts.
According to Thompson, the food scene may have evolved in the past quarter-century, but the fundamentals of good cooking have stayed the same.
“Gourmet, to me, is a term used to define an overall experience and relationship with food,” he says. “I’m not sure the term ‘gourmet’ has evolved over the past 25 years. I would argue that gourmet has always meant something prepared and presented to the highest quality so as to exceed expectations. We may use different products to achieve this end, but the goal and idea of it remain the same.”
As for his own style, he says, “I make food that is simply prepared and presented. I don’t fuss too much with the food; it’s already good by itself.”
Thompson agrees that Oklahoma is poised for culinary greatness. “The best thing about fine dining in Oklahoma right now is that we’re right on the edge of keeping up with the larger markets in our country,” he says. “I think within a few years, we will catch up to the larger cities. That’s pretty exciting to be a part of.”
Jonathon Stranger and Russ Johnson
Chefs and Owners, Ludivine
At restaurants across the nation, the phrase “farm-to-table” is being heard more. As the local food movement gains traction, nowhere is it being practiced more diligently – and deliciously – than at Oklahoma City’s Ludivine. Every ingredient, with few exceptions, such as seafood, is locally sourced. In the two years since its doors opened on a quiet downtown block, Ludivine has become an Oklahoma byword for sustainable fine dining, spearheaded by chefs Jonathon Stranger and Russ Johnson.
Stranger says Ludivine arrived at an opportune time. “The city itself has begun to get more and more national exposure from projects such as MAPS, the Thunder and a fast-paced, growing economy,” he says. “When people come and dig in to the city to see what is going on, naturally people eat and are surprised in some cases to see a culinary scene that is just now beginning to fine-tune and define itself.”
Despite Ludivine’s enormous success in such a short time, both Johnson and Stranger are proceeding with caution. “I think it’s easy to be tempted, especially once you’ve had a little taste of success and recognition, to try to grow and expand too fast, and quality is often a casualty of such moves,” Johnson says. “It’s a scenario that would not be acceptable to me.”
According to Johnson, modern gourmet is all about simplicity. “There is a greater focus on ingredients, on raw product and the origin and freshness thereof,” he says, “and we (chefs and diners alike) have learned to appreciate, embrace and champion simplicity and restraint with regard to their preparation.”
For Stranger, it’s about a fresh perspective. “Gourmet, now, for me, is about taking modern technique and equipment and applying it in a very thoughtful way to ingredients that are just coming on the scene. Before, steak and lobster were gourmet, but the great cooks of now are bored with this and want to search out new flavor and a new approach.”
Executive Chef, R Bar and Grill
Think “bar food,” and images of sweaty peanuts and smashed potato chips instantly come to mind. Nothing could be more different at Tulsa’s R Bar and Grill, where executive chef Trevor Tack is known for serving four-course meals paired with fine ales, themed brunches that have become the hit of Tulsa’s Sunday circuit, and such guilty foodie pleasures as poutine.
Born and raised in Chickasha, Tack served a brief stint in Tulsa before moving to Denver to serve as a personal chef to team members of the Colorado Rockies. “It was a very fun and unique challenge,” he says. “However, my heart is and has always been in production kitchens.”
He was eventually lured back to Tulsa, where he is excited about the national attention local cuisine has been receiving. That attention is about more than the food, though, he says; it’s about the diners.
“Young people are sticking around, taking advantage of our resources, such as low cost of living, good job markets and burgeoning cities,” he says. “These people want to eat well. They’ve traveled, read about and seen what others are eating, and they want it too … No one is saying, ‘Oh, I wish we had food like (insert city here).’ Instead, they are demanding it in their neighborhoods, in their downtowns and in their grocers as well.”
Tack believes that Oklahoma’s culinary future will be based on accessibility. Of the evolution in dining during the past 25 years, he says, “I think you will see the term ‘casual chic’ start to emerge. There will be menus of inventive, locally inspired cuisine and artistically plated and complex food being served by a waiter with a sleeve tattoo and a bistro apron.”
Of his own cooking, Tack says, “I don’t want to reinvent the wheel. I just want to make good wheels. Over and over and over.”
Executive Chef, Vast
The crown jewel of the new Devon Energy Center in downtown Oklahoma City, Vast occupies the 49th and 50th floors of the skyscraper and offers visitors spectacular views of the city that can be enjoyed either with other guests or in the intimacy of private dining rooms. The new restaurant is quickly earning a reputation not just for its unique location, but for giving upscale dining a whole new meaning.
Executive Chef Patrick Williams, a Midwest native, says Vast was the opportunity of a lifetime.
“I came to Oklahoma to cook because it was, and is, a fantastic opportunity,” he says. “Restaurants of the magnitude of Vast come along very infrequently. To have the opportunity to open a new one as the executive chef is a dream come true.”
Williams brings to the table his signature Midwestern style, together with inspiring global flavors and seasonal ingredients, the latter of which hold a special place in his heart and in his cooking.
“Though I do approach food with seasonality in mind, I am most enamored with ingredients at the transition of seasons,” he says. “Late-harvest heirloom tomatoes with newly harvested autumn squash come to mind. True abundance of flavors happens as spring gives way to summer, and summer gives way to autumn.”
In Williams’ opinion, gourmet food has made a definite transformation in the past few decades. “Gourmet of 25 years ago was much more of a ‘layer-it-on’ approach,” he says. “It was about adding more, more, more! It was about heavier sauces with tons of cream and butter that muted flavors but were quite rich and luxurious. It was about a striking presentation of height and color, even if it meant the flavors were muddled and it was difficult to eat. The eating of the dish must now be considered in its design, so it is effortless to get all of the envisioned flavors and textures properly into one bite.”
Like his contemporaries, he agrees that haute cuisine in Oklahoma is on the rise – but like Williams himself, natives of the Sooner State are not about to forget their roots.
“Oklahoma City is going through a culinary awakening,” he says. “People seek more sophistication and new experiences. Vast is not the first restaurant on this scene, but we are the first to do it on such a grand scale. Every day, more Oklahomans are becoming interested in modern gourmet cuisine and I have a chance to bring it to them in a way they are comfortable with. No matter how refined the dining experience is to be, Oklahomans want it to be fun and comfortable. As a Midwesterner myself, I identify with that.”
Executive Chef, Republic Gastropub
Cheddar and ale soup. Bacon-wrapped meatloaf. BLTs with fried green tomatoes and avocado relish. The iconic Scotch egg. Hungry yet? How about a drink, too?
Located in swanky Classen Curve, Republic Gastropub serves modern spins on time-honored pub favorites. To wash it all down, the eatery offers more than 100 beers on tap, as well as upwards of 250 bottled selections. Like any pub worth its salt, the dining room and patio come equipped with big screen televisions that allow diners to watch the game (or all the games) while enjoying the best in contemporary bar food.
But hearty pub fare is not the only culinary trick up Executive Chef Trey Ferguson’s sleeve. He also created the menu for Cool Greens, a local, healthy dining chain that eschews both trans fats and processed food on its menu.
Inspired by the likes of Thomas Keller and local legend Fleischfresser, Ferguson says, “I like to consider my style as fresh, flavorful with bright accents and a lean toward health consciousness.”
According to the chef, the diners of today are the true impetus behind Oklahoma’s recent food revolution. “The future here is bright and will continue to evolve. I believe that our new young clientele expect a higher standard for dining and this will drive the fine dining experience in Oklahoma.”
In addition, he says “chefs are better educated and have access to better ingredients than 25 years ago.”
For Ferguson, cooking is a way of communication. “It’s an opportunity to touch another person in very personal and sincere way,” he says. “I have always said that I don’t make great dishes, just great, happy guests. I also enjoy the creativity and production of kitchen environment.”
Grab a knife and fork and dig in to this sampling of Oklahoma restaurants that serve up gourmet grub in atmospheres that vary from fancy dining rooms to much more casual locales.
Biga – This south Brookside Italian trattoria specializes in rustic dishes elevated to new heights by chef and owner Tuck Curren. Order: There’s usually some variation of gnocchi on the menu, and Biga is one of the few places that does this dish correctly.
Doc’s Wine & Food – Located on the hallowed ground of Brookside’s old Grapevine, the French Quarter inspired bistro serves a lively crowd that comes for cocktails and stays for the savory offerings on the ever-changing menu. Order: The oysters sing here, whether smoked, fried or raw. The shrimp and grits and beouf bourguinon are also winners.
Go West – Just a 10-minute drive from downtown Tulsa, Johnny and Aila Wimpy serve what they call contemporary cowboy cuisine, drawing on influences from throughout the American West. Order: Grilled beef tenderloin with wild mushroom and smoked potato enchiladas.
Lucky’s – This chic little space on Cherry Street features favorite recipes from owners Matt and Brooke Kelly that incorporate a world of influences with a nod to Oklahoma and the southwest. Order: The Trimbach Riesling chicken and the Asian style pork chop are our faves.
Palace Café – Chef James Shrader dishes up some of the best plates in town from his Cherry Street kitchen. His Nouveau American Cuisine is expressed in a seasonal menu featuring the freshest and most local ingredients available. Order: Spring for a half-dozen bentos, the lobster corndogs and whatever fish special is offered.
Polo Grill – Tulsa’s most decorated restaurant has presented award-winning food in Utica Square for 30 years, all under the watchful eye of James Beard Foundation-awarded chef, Robert Merrifield. Polo Grill also has perhaps the finest wine collection in the state. Order: Favorites are simple classics like steak tartare, spinach and strawberry salad, stuffed French breast of chicken and any pork dish.
SMOKE – Chef Erik Reynolds focuses the menu of his Cherry Street restaurant on American inspired dishes spiced up with liberal use of a wood-fired grill – all with astounding results. Order: Meat, and lots of it, is the specialty of the house. The steaks are divine, but we also love the salmon, scallops and smoked chicken-fried quail.
Stonehorse – Tim Inman’s Utica Square restaurant consistently delivers one of Tulsa’s best dining experiences with painstaking attention to detail and sourcing of ingredients. Order: The menu is constantly changing, but look for salad Niçoise, truck stop style meatloaf and salmon Marguery.
The Tavern – This pub-inspired restaurant from Chef Grant Vespasian elevates comfort food and familiar ingredients to new heights in a casual neighborhood setting in the Brady Arts District. Order: The Tavern burger is a standout. We also love the mac and cheese and the pork chop.
Local – This Norman eatery has quickly gained a reputation as one of the top in the area with a seasonal menu and a dedication to sustainability, healthy living and family. Order: The daily specials are always something to watch. The stacked chicken enchiladas and Portobello fries are also recommended.
Paseo Grill – This cozy space in the heart of the Paseo Arts District features a menu that starts with classic American dishes and infuses flavors from around the globe. Order: The lobster and crab cakes, filet and duck breast are spotlighted on the menu as specialties of the house – there’s a reason why.
Stella – Lori Tyler fell in love with Rome and Roman dining while in college, and she’s brought a taste of that cuisine and style to Heritage Hills. Order: The veal osso bucco is a special treat, but you can also never go wrong with one of Stella’s inventive pizzas.
Red PrimeSteak – When award-winning architect Rand Elliott transforms a landmark building into a showplace restaurant, the food better live up – and it does. The restaurant’s contemporary spin on the chophouse quickly made it one of the city’s best. Order: Meat! We favor the 40-day dry-aged strip or the American Wagyu-style rib eye, but the horseradish potato gratin and smoked bacon creamed corn are worth the trip alone.
Boulevard Steakhouse – Expertly prepared steaks, a swank dining room, stupendous wine list and Old School service have earned this Edmond institution a place among the state’s best restaurants. Order: Start with a sizzling oyster sampler for the table before diving in to a sumptuous Steak Diane.
The Metro Wine Bar & Bistro – Chef Jonas Favela helms this OKC favorite of more than 20 years, offering an eclectic menu of continental favorites that occasionally takes a side trip to other far flung areas of the globe. Order: The sautéed veal liver will make you forget you don’t like liver. Also, don’t leave without an order of lamb potstickers.
The Mantle – A true gourmet experience in the heart of Bricktown, this chic little restaurant serves up classic dishes with modern flair along with a few well-placed Asian inspired specialties. Order: The whole fish is to die for, as is the pan seared duck breast.
Cheever’s Cafe – This Northwest 23rd Street fave serves what they dub “American comfort food” – inventive dishes with diner appeal and Southwest spice. Order: It’s hard to choose, but you won’t go wrong with the braised short rib ragout or the mixed seafood tamales.
The Coach House – More than one reviewer with enough credibility to back up the claim has called this Oklahoma’s best restaurant. Master chef Kurt Fleischfresser’s seasonal menus consistently deliver elegance and enough invention to keep a loyal clientele coming back. Order: The seared jumbo shrimp with Oklahoma cheddar corn cake is a great way to start. Sautéed Dover sole was a standout on a recent menu. – Thom Golden