Far away in the brilliant blue of the Caribbean Sea is a tiny island where everything shuts down for lunch. Workers grab their bicycles and pedal past verdant, rugged hills, azure waters and palm-fringed beaches. Fishermen unload their morning’s catch, all on the way to their tin-roofed houses.
“Lunch is a big thing,” says Eben Shillingford, owner of Sisserou’s Restaurant. “The whole family gathers; it’s a lazy time of good food and fellowship. On the small island of Dominica, food and family go together.”
Shillingford pauses to greet a regular diner at Sisserou’s. They hug; the customer grins. They seem like long-time friends.
Walk through the plain glass door of Sisserou’s – which opened in the Brady Arts District in the spring – and you’ll run smack dab into an explosion of Caribbean color and joie de vivre. The walls are deep-sea blue, lollipop lemon and shocking pink, and overhead hang paper lanterns like carnival balloons.
“My sister designed the decor,” he says. “She went to design school in Miami (Florida). She wanted to bring the island spirit to Tulsa.”[pullquote]“Lunch is a big thing,” says Eben Shillingford, owner of Sisserou’s Restaurant. “The whole family gathers; it’s a lazy time of good food and fellowship. On the small island of Dominica, food and family go together.”[/pullquote]
Shillingford himself, dapper in a well-tailored suit, seems better suited to a James Bond-style jaunt in Monte Carlo than a breezy day in the Caribbean. In fact, he was born in New York. His family moved to Tulsa in 1979 when his mother took a job with American Airlines. But his grandparents all hail from Dominica. Visiting the island at the age of 14, he fell under its sultry spell.
Captivated as a boy by the easygoing island life and pretty women, he soon grew to appreciate the deep-rooted culture, strong family values and the delicious food marrying the two.
Sisserou’s serves food made from Shillingford’s family recipes, and they go back a long way. He received them from his father and mother. His father, the CEO of one of the nation’s largest HVAC firms, was handed the recipes from his mother, the late Agatha Allport Shillingford, who was given them from her grandmother’s sister.
Like fine wine, Shillingford says, “cuisine is based on terroir,” so he had to adapt the recipes to Oklahoma’s geography. On Dominica you pull your fish straight out of the ocean, gut it on a beachside tree stump and throw it in the pot.
Shillingford has his fish flown in from Key West, Fla., by same-day postal express. Also, Dominicans are fond of the fiery-sweet Scotch bonnet red pepper. In Tulsa, Shillingford uses habaneros and a pinch of sugar.
But all this may not have happened if he didn’t see an online ad posted by Ben Alexander, who served as executive chef at Wolfgang Puck Bistro in Brookside, after it closed suddenly in November. Shillingford immediately hired him.
Alexander is passionate about the food he serves.
“I won’t serve it unless I’d eat it,” Alexander says. “And I’m very picky about what I eat.”
Using mostly locally sourced ingredients, the chef and Shillingford tweaked the family recipes into haute-cuisine fare.
Yet, every dish on the menu is seasoned with memories. There’s the richly stewed oxtail; mahi-mahi, slowly poached with garlic, heirloom tomato and habanero; curry with coconut milk; even hamburgers. Some dishes come from other regions, such as a succulent Jamaican-style jerk chicken and lobster thermidor, cooked according to Shillingford’s English wife’s recipe.
Top it off with a glass of authentic island rum punch – made with Appleton’s rum, nutmeg, tamarind and lime – and you’ll find yourself in Shillingford’s dream to “bring a little island oasis to Tulsa.” 107 N. Boulder Ave., Tulsa. www.sisserousrestauranttulsa.com