“I was full of fire back then,” Greg Hughes told an Oklahoma Magazine interviewer in early 2018, recalling the days when he dared to open a sushi restaurant in a decidedly meat-and-potatoes town. During that time, he spent sleepless nights prepping, cleaning tables, waiting for customers who never came … until a few months later, when they did come, making In the Raw one of Tulsa’s greatest culinary success stories.
“Now, I’m content with my three daughters,” said Hughes back then. “If I ever wrote a book, it would be called How to Open a Restaurant: DON’T!”
And yet, just two months after that interview, Hughes found himself agreeing to do just that: open a new restaurant. It was to crown the gleaming new Vast Bank building in Tulsa, which would anchor the downtown Arts District. The bank agreed to build an extra story just so In the Raw could have the penthouse.
“And I grew up with [Vast Bank CEO] Tom Biolchini, so I just couldn’t say no,” says Hughes.
Work started in the summer of 2018. In April 2019, a secret wedding was held in the empty space on the sixth floor; there, Hughes married his fiancée Ashley Bode.
“There were no walls,” Hughes recalls. “We had to wear hard hats.”
Bode is an interior decorator and caterer; it’s a perfect partnership. James Boswell, who has designed all of Hughes’ restaurants, created a soaring yet whimsical interior with sleek benches and elaborate ceilings, while Bode designed the furniture and interior groups, including bubbly chairs the color of wasabi, salmon-colored benches (yes, there’s a sushi theme here) and strange yet memorable chandeliers with wavy cloths that drift overhead like anemones.
“There was so much less stress this time,” says Hughes. “We’re a good team.”
Of course, Hughes downplays the obstacles he overcame. Delays happened. COVID-19 happened. Even during the lockdown, Hughes managed to convert his other restaurants to take-out and have his servers do delivery, meaning that no one lost his job.
Everyone involved with the new In the Raw uses the word “elevate,” and it’s not just because the restaurant soars almost 100 feet above its neighbors. They’ve taken the old In the Raw concept – food to satisfy everybody, be they carnivores (delicious steak), taco lovers (Baja-inspired fish tacos), or connoisseurs of traditional sushi – and, well, elevated it. Taken it to the next level.
At the bar, all gleaming steel and tile, you can get such rare Japanese whiskies as Fukano, Ohishi and Matsui, as well as American treats like High West Midwinter Night’s Dram. Nearby is the lounge, with comfortable, plush, brightly colored leather benches and those wasabi chairs.
“Everyone asks for a view or a booth,” says manager Matthew Paul, “and we have both.”
It’s the view, of course, that makes the place shine. Bright, endless skies by day and then, when night falls and they dim the interior lights, the soaring downtown skyline dominates.
“Yes, it’s exciting,” says Paul. “We want the wow factor.” And he gets it. On weekends, the place is fully booked. (There are 220 seats, but far fewer can be used now because of the pandemic.) People come from midtown. People come from Texas.
“Up here, you could be atop any big metropolis,” says Bode. “People can’t travel now, but they can come here. It’s an escape. You could be anywhere.”
Paul adds: “You feel like you’re on top of the world.”
Right near the entrance is a small sushi bar, staffed by veteran chefs.
“Jackie, how long have you worked for us?” Paul asks one of the sushi chefs.
“Six years,” he replies.
Behind the bar is a large kitchen. There are even saute and fry stations – yes, some of the sushi rolls involve cooked lobster tail with a classic French sauce atop it – and, of course, a sushi area where, on a busy night, six sushi chefs are at work. They’re headed by Cody Stell, who’s been working for ITR for almost 20 years.
The menu has all the old favorites, but there are some stunningly presented new ones as well, including steak nigiri with quail egg and ahi tuna sashimi with honey soy sauce. One memorable platter features a fishtail bowl with cubes of tuna tartare, six rice cubes in the middle, and a cup shaped like a shark’s mouth holding a sweet dipping sauce. Showy, perhaps … but also really good.