October 19th, 2012 by Brian Schwartz – Comments (0)
You’ll like Lee Brennan. I do. He’s a big guy with a big grin, the owner of Tulsa’s newest hangout, the Rusty Crane. He’s grinning because he’s living his childhood dream. I first met Lee on a sultry August afternoon at the end of the summer’s biggest heat wave. I went there to interview him for Oklahoma Magazine. We were outside an old and, it seemed to me, singularly unprepossessing red brick building on Brady right across from the ball park. The sun blazed down and I wanted to go inside. But Lee just didn’t notice the heat. “Come, just look around this corner,” he said, running into a narrow pasageway. “We call this ‘London Lane’. There will be old-fashioned lights and teak tables and it will be so beautiful when it’s full of diners enjoying the cool of the evening!” And on a crisp lovely autumn evening two months later, so it was.
The building, which has more than a little charm viewed in that autumn light, was built around 1919. Destroyed a year later in the riots, it was rebuilt in 1922. It housed a glass plating factory. (Glass plating was a way of making stained glass windows.) For many many years Lee had dreamed of refurbishing one of those old downtown factories so he could see its potential better than anyone. “I LOVE downtown!” he declares. And the building… “it’s like having a baby”, he said, as he ran around back in August inspecting what the workers had done that day. “I want to be in on every aspect of its development.”
“You must see this, it’s amazing!” he said, pulling me inside a narrow door. “It’s the most wonderful room!” I went in and saw this.
I turned around and saw this.
To me it looked like a bombed-out street in East Berlin. But Lee saw its beauty. “We’ll leave the exposed brick and original girders,” he told me. “That will give it a comfortable feel. The bar is amazing. We’ll finish it with 80 year old bricks from the Mayo Hotel. And check out those chairs and tables!” He pointed to the dusty relics in the background. “I found a master carpenter, his name is John Dawson. He’s building blond wood tables which will have panels of weathered old wood inlaid on top. The chairs are made by Hooker Furniture, they’ll complete the picture.” And Lee, as usual was right. Just look at the space today; it’s as beautiful as he said it would be.
You can see the Hooker chairs and Dawson tables on the right, next to the beige leather banquettes and under the paintings, all painted by local artists. The room is charming. There’s enough of the old weathered look to give it an indefinable charm. It is the perfect embodiment of the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi , which stresses imperfection and impermanence. The rusty girders and weatherbeaten wood and open brickwork all contribute to this soothing comfort. It is beautiful.
Of course the Japanese didn’t intend wabi-sabi to be soothing and comfortable. They were Buddhists, after all. But Lee wants to create a welcoming space. He’s created another childhood dream. A super-secret clubhouse where EVERYONE is welcome. And the dining room does this. Here’s another photo, of the area just west of the bar.
Beneath the local artwork, tables on which are inlaid old black-and-white family photos that Brennan collected from relatives and Facebook fans.
The food is the perfect complement to this. “It’s haute cuisine in flip-flops!” says Brennan. In other words, the food, though carefully prepared from top-quality ingredients including farm-fresh produce, though using innovative recipes designed by Lee and Executive Chef Gary Kessler, will be quirky, sensual and just plain fun to eat. We’re a ragtag band of gypsy chefs, says Lee with a grin. But a lot of time and care and patience goes into each plate. “Love is the secret ingredient,” says Lee.
The food is also fun to look at. Take a look at this.
It’s a Yumlada! Yes, the dishes all have wacky names. And every dish is $12 or under, except for this $13 Yumlada and the sirloin ($15) and strip ($19) steaks. There’s also a neat kids’ menu, even cheaper. (We all have kids, says Lee, so we made the place family-friendly.) The Yumlada is like an enchilada with a bit of Italian flair, and features chicken, a rich Alfredo sauce, red pepper and spinach from local farms, and Monterey Jack cheese. It’s a gooey delicious treat. It comes with fruit but I substituted black beans with rice. Great too; the beans were slow-simmered in house. Those enormous chips, made from tortillas, were surprisingly good.
Cathe had a Mediterranean wrap.
According to Brennan, this contains black bean hummus, lettuce, chicken in the signature rub (“Rusty Dust”; it’s cumin-laden and really good), cucumber, red onion and tomatoes marinated in red wine vinegar topped with cucumber sauce and feta. I liked it too but I preferred the Yumlada.
And Betty got this huge Trojan taco.
Lee hopes people will view this as a casual relaxed destination where they will talk, sit on a sofa or bench on the patio, relax and linger. But we were so full from the delicious food that we ate and ran.
The Rusty Crane
109 North Detroit Av
http://www.therustycranetulsa.com (website under construction)
Open daily from 11 AM to really late.
The quotes above are reconstructed from my August notes and might not be verbatim.
My Oklahoma Magazine article about Rusty Crane:
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.