Brian Schwartz’s Top Tulsa Dishes of 2014

By on January 16, 2015

I’m shaking things up this year.

When I began working on the Top Tulsa Dishes of 2014 list a few weeks ago, it was business as usual. I did what I do each year, and made a list of Tulsa’s finest chefs… Tim Richards, for example. Then I made a list of all the wonderful fish specials Tim made at Doc’s last year, picked the most complex and artistic of these, and put it on my best dishes list. I did the same for each chef. So easy! And that’s my list.

And then I suddenly realized… this is not the Best Chefs List. This is not even the Best Restaurants List. This is the Best Dishes List! I also realized…

This is not the Most Complex and Artistic Dishes List. This is not the Dishes So Beautifully Plated that You Want to Hang Them on the Wall at MOMA List. This IS the list of dishes so delicious that I stay awake at night yearning for them. This IS the list of food so good that a drug-addicted sex fiend would crawl over heaps of drugs, cigarettes and cash, bypass scores of sultry sirens without so much as a backward glance, just to get a taste of it. This is the Best Dishes List.

So here is the list of the dishes I desire the most, in order. The dishes I dream of in the middle of the night. The craveables. A few new criteria: it must be a dish on the regular menu. (It’s so unfair to tantalize you with food you can’t have). And it must be a new dish. Otherwise, Mahogany would snag first place year after year for their Cowboy Ribeye. I’ve made a second list of best dishes from wine dinners and so forth, and in that list, artistry is rewarded.

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1) Pizza Margherita at Bohemian Pizza

I remember sitting outside after one of the worst ice storms in decades, and the only car I saw all day was a pizza delivery van. It’s not hard to find pizza in Tulsa. But until a few short weeks ago, finding really good, top-of-the-line pizza was impossible. You’d have to go to Brooklyn or Naples. And talk about complex and artistic–there’s nothing so complex or artistic or difficult to make as primo pizza. You could have an entire college course on The Math of Pizza, but it would have to be a graduate seminar because it would deal with such things as the topology of a scale-invariant solid foam, and turbulence and hot spots in a 900 degree wood-burning oven. Somehow, Jeremy New does it right. He’s mastered that beast of an oven, and out of that oven door come little, charred, gooey works of art, worthy of comparison to Naples’ best, so good you’ll eat it all in a minute and fight over the last slice. (Note: the same boat that brought Bohemian’s oven from Italy carried another oven for Tulsa. It was installed a few blocks west over at Andolini’s new pizzeria in the Blue Dome district, named STG. It’s too early to say, but it looks like STG is a worthy competitor for Bohemian).

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2) Street Corn at Sisserou’s

“Your food is beyond good, Eben,” I said. “It’s totally addictive.”

Eben’s the man who brought a breath of sultry tropical air to brighten our long Tulsa winters. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve eaten at Sisserou’s.

“Take that street corn,” I continued, referring to Eben’s popular appetizer. It’s modeled after the cobs you see old ladies grilling under the elevated train tracks in the Latin neighborhoods of Queens and Brooklyn. “Give me a pile of that, and I’ll eat the whole pile. Even if I know that the finest Kobe steak is coming, if I see a heap of that street corn, I’m going to eat it. I’m going to eat every last bit of it. It’s just that good. So, how do you do it?”

Sisserou’s entrees feature a blend of traditional island recipes elevated to the level of haute cuisine, and I could have picked any of these sophisticated, delicious dishes for this list. But I’m going with the street corn because I’ve never been to Sisserou’s and not ordered it.

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3) Roast Chicken at Tallgrass

Mature, confident and assured, Tallgrass Prairie Table is already a respected, even legendary veteran. It’s hard to believe that just 14 months ago it was little more than an empty printer’s shop and a dream. Michelle Donaldson’s cooking, always expert, has settled into a style: rustic and sophisticated at the same time, always sure to dazzle. All through spring and summer, the vegetables shine and their fresh, vibrant flavor is a revelation to anyone who didn’t grow up on a farm, and a Proustian moment for those who did. Come fall, the focus moves to other things, including the best roast chicken I’ve ever tasted: The Judy Rodgers Oven-Roasted Half Chicken.

Rodgers was a San Francisco chef who took a farm-to-table approach (a lot of chefs in those golden years of California cuisine did, including Matt Kelley) much like Michelle’s. Rodgers developed a special technique for roasting chicken. It’s billed as a simple recipe, but I’ve seen it and it has 8 complex steps, the first of which (season and brine the chicken) takes two days. All I can say is just order it. The skin is crisp, the meat — even the breast — is juicy and flavor-packed, and it’s enough to fill two people. According to the menu, it’s “hormone, antibiotic, and cage-free chicken” from a local Oklahoma farm, and it’s accompanied by corn bread, apple, sage, bacon, creamed greens, pan dripping. The chicken is so good you’ll barely notice what it comes with.

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4) Classic Burger with American Cheese at HopBunz

I never thought I’d love HopBunz. Tulsa has more good burger places than any town has a right to, and I was already crazy about BGB in Utica Square. How could yet another place capture my heart? And yet… I’ve been to HopBunz at least ten times in the past two months and each time the burger just disappears in an orgy of carnivorous greed. It’s the perfect blend of patty, cheese and bun (I usually substitute mayo for their “dijonnaise” mustard-mayo blend). They have at least 20 burger choices. But don’t think of ordering anything other than that classic with American cheese. Except maybe bacon to go on top. And a strawberry custard shake.

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5) Ramen at Ming’s

Chef Fai Jow at Ming’s Noodle Bar won our hearts by taking the classic Chinese-American dishes of our youth, and with a bit of subtle, brilliant legerdemain, transforming them into a stunning wake-up call for our taste buds. He’s spent a lot of time and thought doing the same thing for ramen. There are hundreds of restaurants both in and out of Japan that compete to serve the best, but Fai’s ramen is different from all of them. The stock is fantastic.

“I’m trying to develop layers and layers of flavor,” said Fai. It’s the kind of stock the Japanese call tonkotsu-gyokai, which means it’s made with pork bones and dried fish. Fai takes it to another level by roasting the bones and not just boiling them. That adds another layer of flavor.

“It’s all about the depth and the dish,” says co-owner, Bart Speegle. For yet another taste explosion, Fai adds dried seaweed. There’s delicious pork belly, wok-seared to add caramelization, and an egg on top (on request) for even more flavor. It’s a classic, killer dish, and another reason to love Ming’s.

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6) Lamb Chop Masala at Cumin

This was the year that, after many long months on the Indian subcontinent, I finally got to taste Indian food in all its glory… at a restaurant in south Tulsa. Chef Shifali Bullar’s food was a revelation to me. Of course, she didn’t learn to cook in Tulsa, but in a tiny village far away. If you’d been in India 20 years ago, on the rolling fertile Punjab plains (a region steeped in timeless tradition even when Rudyard Kipling immortalized it in his novel “Kim”), and if you’d headed northeast until, 20 miles past the town of Hoshiarpur, you reached the foothills of the Himalayas, you would have found Shifali’s village and you would have eaten well.

“If anyone came to our house,” says Shifali, “they did not leave without eating.” When it comes to cooking, Shifali was a child prodigy. “Growing up in a village,” she recalls, “I remember at the age of 6 or 7 making paratha stuffed with leftover cauliflower over a wood fire. My father walked in with some friends and they were shocked that such a young girl could make such a complex recipe.”

Of course, Shifali’s cooking has matured since then, and the complex kaleidoscope of dishes that comes out of her kitchen might have earned her the number one spot on this list if it were a list of top restaurants, and not of specific dishes. Any one of her dishes deserves to be on this list, not least the rich, savory and very photogenic lamb chop masala.

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7) Foie Gras at Bodean

Like a luxurious, stately ocean liner, Bodean sails on. Trevor Tack has left the bridge and it’s now helmed by veteran chefs Jared Chamberlain and Antonio Godoy, who previously worked with Trevor. I’ve met Antonio. He looks too young to be a top chef and in fact when he showed up at Bodean many years ago he was looking for work as a dishwasher. Tim Richards was running things then. He soon recognized Godoy’s innate talent and trained him. Godoy didn’t disappoint. The service is as impeccable as ever. Thanks to Trevor, there’s less of a focus on the sea, and I always order the foie gras. It’s supremely decadent and unctuous. The preparation varies. Jared’s and Antonio’s latest presentation pairs it with a house-made conserve made with fresh lingonberries (a Swedish treat) from Oregon.

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8) Spicy Pig Brains with Bean Curd at Mandarin Taste

Uncompromisingly authentic and always excellent, Mandarin Taste, along with Tulsa’s other new Chinese entrant, China Garden, never ceases to astound. Both have new chefs this year, and both of these chefs trained in China. Mandarin Taste gave me my favorite Chinese dish of the year, a spicy pig brain entree that is famous in Chengdu but hard to find outside it. The rich red sauce is bursting with flavor. Lots of Sichuan peppercorns and something fragrant, almost like perfume. And the brains? Well they taste just like foie gras, though not as rich. So they’d be awesome if you didn’t know they were brains.

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9) Ruby Darby at Bramble

This is a first. And yet, the drinks at Bramble, an offshoot of Tallgrass, feature a complex panoply of fresh, local ingredients to intrigue, tantalize and delight the palate. Take the Ruby Darby, named after a chanteuse who was the belle of the Oklahoma oilfields (and who, when offered a contract that guaranteed her nationwide singing fame, turned it down and stayed in Oklahoma). They use ArteNOM Seleccion Tequila Blanco 1580 as the base liquor. That’s a tequila so fancy, it’s made only with agave grown at an elevation of 6,200 feet and higher, and when I looked up its tasting profile, I found a long list of flavors like ripe pineapple, banana, and notes of jalapeño. They then mix in a syrup made from prickly pear grown at nearby Living Kitchen farms, and a second syrup house-made from limes, black peppercorns, and a splash of Averna liqueur. On top go lemon bitters, and there’s lime leaf salt on the rim. But the killer touch is an ice cube made of Blackberry Pimm’s, which, as it slowly melts, changes the flavor of the drink by adding notes of blackberry and elderflower. It is a brilliant drink, and I sipped on it for an hour.

Try Travis Jackson’s spheroid shots, bursting with a crazy mix of fruits, booze and herbal flavors, too. The only reason I didn’t select them for the list is that they’re gone in 60 seconds.

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10) Gelato at STG

The brains behind Andolini’s have brought us perfect Italian gelato.

“We went to Parma, Italy, to study how gelato is made,” Mike Bausch (the brains behind the operation) told a journalist a few months ago. “We want to use the same style, same ingredients, same machinery so all of it is exactly the same.” And indeed they did. If you’ve ever had gelato in Naples, or perhaps one of the old Italian nabes in Brooklyn, just choose any flavor, take a taste, and the memories will start flooding back.

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11) Kalbi at Gogi Gui and Bibimbap at Sobahn (tie)

There are two great Korean joints running neck and neck for the top prize, and they couldn’t be more different. Gogi Gui is run by two brothers from Los Angeles who, after graduating college, trained for many years at Korean restaurants. But they use their training to shake things up a bit. Take the kalbi, a traditional Korean dish made of barbecued beef short ribs that have been marinated in soy sauce and sugar.

“Ah, but our version is different,” Samon, one of the brothers, explains. “We use natural pears and bee honey instead of sugar. The pears help tenderize the beef.” This subtly but dramatically improves the flavor.

Move over to Sobahn, not far from the Woodland Hills Mall, and you’ll find food just like Mama used to cook… if you grew up in a village in Korea. The elderly matriarch who presides over Sobahn’s kitchen makes ordinary dishes shine. The bibimbap at Sobahn isn’t the fancy, rainbow-striped restaurant presentation we’re all used to. It’s home cooking, and it’s lip-smacking delicious. Which place is better? You decide.

Brian Schwartz

About Brian Schwartz

Born in NYC, age 0, on my birthday. College in Oxford at age 16. Law School in New Haven, Conn. 6 years travel in Africa and Asia. Haven’t done much lately. Still, I’m the only Tulsa member of the little-known Omega Society. www.theomegasociety.com I speak enough Chinese to order food not on any English menu. Spanish French Italian too (not fluently but food-ently) My favorite restaurant is Jean-Georges in New York. But those NYC chefs would sell their soul to get the produce available from the farms around Inola. “A writer writes alone. His words tumble forth from a magical inner void that is mysterious even to himself, and that no one else can enter.” And yet, the most important thing to me the writer is YOU. Without you to hear them, my words are worth less than silence.

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