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Tulsa’s Ten Best Dishes of 2012
Most of you have treasured Christmas memories of getting the gift of your dreams, like that adorable yet totally self-centered kid in “Christmas Story”. Me, I rarely got the presents I wanted, but there was one gift, eagerly awaited and always dependable, that rolled around without fail the Sunday after Christmas. Plopped outside the door by unknown Santas, nestled inside the huge Sunday New York Times, was Section 2, which on that date featured “Best of the Year” — lists of the best films, plays, restaurants, compiled by critics who surely were the world’s undisputed best experts. And now, as I compile this list, my belated Christmas present to you, I realize how fallible these “experts” are. My main problem this year: there are just too many! So this list leaves out a lot of chefs and restaurants that probably should have made the cut. Justin Thompson is Santa’s favorite this year; he becomes the first person in Tulsa history to have both of the top two dishes on my list served in one of his restaurants.
1. Juniper. Scallops with squid ink and ice cream.
THE BEST DISH OF THE YEAR? Scallops and squid ink and ice cream? Could be. What mind could have conceived of this combination? A genius chef, because it worked! Four huge luscious scallops were surrounded by a jet-black lake of squid ink puree whose salty taste smacked of the sea. Nearby was a mountain of crunchy salty julienned celery root accented with crisp pancetta and a vinaigrette dressing and topped with celery root ice cream. Astoundingly, all the flavors harmonized — salty savory umami. Every week at Justin Thompson’s Juniper there’s a new menu chock-full of creative offerings, and just about any one of those could fill this slot.
2. Prhyme. Dry-aged strip steak.
Rich with primal, decadent flavor, the steak I got at Justin Thompson’s Prhyme is the best I’ve ever eaten in my life. (On a return visit, I had the wet-aged strip. I much preferred the complex meaty flavor of the dry-aged but this second strip was also good enough to make this list.)
3. Oui3. Roast duck.
Oui3 arrived like an unexpected shooting star, it’s brilliance catapulting it to the top of Tulsa’s dining scene. Recently, California chef Joshua Roberts, whose philosophy of cooking — deceptively simple yet in fact complex dishes that highlight the flavors of their fine ingredients, dishes whose presentation reaches the level of fine art — meshes well with Ouida Merrifield’s. Lots of dishes to choose from, but I’ve selected their New Year’s Eve special, roast duck. Duck breast, seared then roasted, was served over couscous. The couscous was steamed over boiling white wine fortified by spices and was loaded with duck confit and heirloom tomatoes. The dish I got was far more artfully laid out than the one in this photo.
4. Doc’s. Opah.
Combine Ian van Anglen, one of my favorite chefs in the world, with the incredibly talented team of Gabriel Lopez and Heather Nail and you’re sure to get dishes worthy of this list. Each week Ian and his colleagues dream up some fabulous weekend specials, and the only problem is deciding which to select. One weekend in late November I ate an opah! Oh not the whole fish, opah is a huge beautiful brightly colored and very rare fish that lives in the deep uncharted waters of the Pacific. Almost nothing is known about it except that it is delicious. (It is not endangered in any way because there is almost no market for it.) Imagine a 200-pound bright red grouper, that’s what it looks like. Ian, as usual, prepared a subtle delicious sauce that complemented the fish’s rich meaty flavor. Unfortunately I don’t have a photo, so I’m using a pic of this delicious sea bass special with ratatouille, sweet corn and cream sauce, which is similar to the opah presentation. I had that dish and it deserves to make the list in its own right. As did so many other dishes I had in Doc’s last year. (See http://tulsafood.com/brookside/a-tour-of-culinary-triumphs-at-docs-wine-food )
5. Wolfgang Puck Bistro. Steak.
Go back 20 years and the closest thing Tulsa had to a celebrity chef was Michael Fusco. If you wanted top-notch cuisine you headed for his restaurant, Flavors, or you headed for Dallas. Two decades later he’s still cooking up a storm. He’s top chef now at Wolfgang Puck’s, always one of my favorite destinations for elegance and superb service. Michael’s weekly specials have raised the bar here. One week he became one of the few chefs to cook steak exactly the way I like it. (It’s not easy.) It was served with an incredible sauce; “it’s a sweet and sour demi-glace!” I told him. Yes, he said, he’d made two demi-glace sauces, one of a sweet wine, the other tarter, and mixed them. One of the best sauces I’ve ever had.
6. R Bar. Brunch steak.
At Tulsa’s first and best gastropub, Trevor Tack’s dishes shine. The title of my original review says it all: “R Bar is a Trendy Brookside Bar with Incredible Food.” The dinner menu has been recently expanded but still includes such favorites as fried chicken with waffles. Lately Trevor has been concentrating on Sunday brunch, devising a new theme menu each week. I visited a few weeks ago; the theme was “diet begins tomorrow”. Among the hi-cal treats was a $17 strip steak. I had recently written my review of Prhyme’s steak as the best I’d ever had, and Trevor wrote on Facebook “Schwartz, I bet I’ll make a run for best steak in t town! That cow lived a good life with in 90 miles of here and died solely to provide you with carnal pleasure! I will cook it for you personally and as much as i love and respect Justin Thompson at Prhyme I’ll take the Pepsi challenge of beef any day of the week!” But when I got there the last steak was being served to someone else. Still, lots of Trevor’s dishes deserve to be on this list and I’m selecting this. KC Strip Steak served with a black winter truffle hollandaise, frizzled leeks, farm eggs, and breakfast potatoes. (And by the way, the fact that I’m listing this as number 6 doesn’t mean that there are five chefs better than Trevor.)
7. Mi Tierra. Pescado a lo Macho
If anyone in New York is reading this, they might allow that we in Tulsa do have some world-class cooking going on, but, they’ll say, what about cooking from other nationalities? We’ve got you beat on that. Well, this is for the most part true, though some of our Thai and Persian restaurants are way above New York average. But there’s one restaurant that beats anything in New York hands down, and that’s our Peruvian gem Mi Tierra. Thousand year old Inca dishes, dishes designed just after the French Revolution by French exiles in Peru, food from the Amazon jungle, you name it and if it’s Peruvian they will cook it superbly. One night, as a special, the owner cooked me this. Sea bass fillet topped by seafood in a rich tomato broth. It looks Italian but it is indeed an authentic Peruvian dish called Pescado a lo Macho.
8. Beck’s. Bouillabaisse
Hidden away in a southside strip mall is a tiny gem run by a 35-year veteran chef. James Beck cooks classic dishes but he gives each dish his own spin. Instead of cooking everything together, which is how most bouillabaisses are made, he first makes a stock by simmering fish bones and bouquet garni, then he uses tomatoes and orange peel and some more herbs to make another stock, and finally he adds the fish, fresh from Florida.
9. Sushi Alley Izakaya. Scallops
It opened in Utica Square with little fanfare, but this tiny Japanese restaurant deserves trumpet blasts for its stellar dishes, including their wonderful grilled meat and this creative scallop dish. The scallops are grilled with yuzu kosho, a traditional sauce from Kyushu Island. It’s made by mixing the peel of the yuzu fruit with green chili peppers. Lovely sharp citric flavor.
10. Mondo’s. Veal Piccata.
You’ve all seen those Olive Garden commericals saying “when you’re here, you’re family.” But what would it be like to be a dinner guest of a REAL Italian-American family, where momma is a world-class chef, where the food traditions of the ancestors who came to America from southern Italy were lovingly maintained but also allowed to evolve to incorporate the offerings of their new homeland? You’d be amazed at the rich panoply of robust, unique flavors. What would it be like? If you want to find out, go to Mondo’s. So why am I listing them in last place? Because they are my friends and won’t be mad at me. Here’s my favorite dish, veal piccata. (Actually, the photo is chicken, but it looks the same.) A tender thin slice of veal served with, to quote the menu, “mushrooms and capers, sauteed in lemon, white wine and garlic butter then thickened with our lemon cream sauce.” Rich, heavenly, you’ll be full to bursting (especially if you eat the free side dish of spaghetti with tomato sauce and the lovely free salad), but you’ll want more.
Each of these restaurants served dishes which could have been included in my top ten. Smoke, especially, served lots and lots of them, but they had two dishes in last year’s top ten. Marcus Vause would surely make this list too, but his new restaurant isn’t open yet. Here they are, in no particular order.
Smoke, Gran Patron (aka Luna de Noche), The Alley, The Tavern (aka Brady Tavern), Stonehorse, Palace, Biga, Mi Cocina, Tropical, My Thai Kitchen, Golden Saddle (for Iranian food), Rusty Crane, the Vault.
Brian Schwartz: Author
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.