Brian Schwartz’s Top 10 Favorite Dishes of 2015

By on January 13, 2016

“I remember when all of this was farmland,” I said, “with horses and cows and all.” We were driving on 21st somewhere around Mingo and there was nothing outside our windows, nothing at all. We were trying, appropriately enough, to find a restaurant named the Un-Restaurant. It’s open only once a month and if you’re late to your seating you don’t get fed. It was somewhere outside, hidden amidst all this nothing.

Well we found it of course, and got one of the best meals of our lives. And I got to thinking, a lot of Tulsa dining was like that in 2015. The buzz, the edgy excitement, the best meals, all were found in restaurants that in one way or another weren’t regular established restaurants. They were secret, they were hidden, they were temporary, and from the minute you walked in the door you shared in the thrill of novelty and creation. That’s why I’m calling the top five of this year’s list “The Un-Restaurants”. I should note that all of them are enough like regular established restaurants that you can call ahead, make plans and reservations, go there and have their top dishes. (For the Temp Tavern though, you must have these dishes at the newly reopened regular Tavern on Brady.)

THE UN-RESTAURANTS

Dishes are listed in my order of preference, but FIRST PLACE is a TIE between Chef Vincent Tran’s wonderful Millicent Brasserie and, appropriately enough…

1 – (tie) 14ct Salad at The Un-Restaurant

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“Oh he’s soooo depressingly young!” moaned the soigne lady to my left. And there he was, Chef Kent Monroe, looking like a teenager begging Dad for the car keys as he tried to explain to the eager table of diners why he put weeks of effort into planning and preparing one lavish meal. Eleven courses with expensive ingredients for $50. No one thought he expected to make a profit. He feels a need to create, he told us, and this is his only outlet. Then the dishes started arriving and we could no longer doubt that he’s a bona-fide artist. Each was complex, jewel-like, and perfectly balanced and each was the product of hours of work. “Hey I’ll just use your menu as my best dishes list!” I told him as we left, and indeed I could have done just that. Instead I’ve chosen this spectacular “salad”, a little garden of delights with each brightly colored cube a wonder of molecular gastronomy. The menu gave up on describing them, and simply said “segments, peels, pickle, confit, CO2, flower, foam, gel, leather” (The confit was in fact a macerated ceviche and the “leather” was fruit jerky.) See those little green strips? They are macerated cucumbers and people fought over them.

1 – (tie) Cuisse de Lapin Chicken at Millicent Brasserie

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Photo provided by Millicent Brasserie

Millicent, a tiny restaurant in Broken Arrow that served only one meal a week (now it’s two), was the biggest surprise of the year. The sun blazed down on a huddle of scruffy low-slung buildings that looked a lot like what you’d see if you took a train west in China along the fringes of the Gobi Desert. (It’s an amazing three-day train ride, but that’s another story.) Inside, a suave and charming young man dapper in his white dinner jacket, swirling hypnotic music, and a procession of carefully designed dishes that evinced the masterful hand of a mature, accomplished chef. And then, at the end, out comes the chicken. It’s like the moment at the end of a fireworks show when they let off all the flares and candles at once and you stare up at the skyful of bursting stars, your face a caricature of primitive awe and amazement. The dish took two days to prepare. A perfect leg of chicken. Potato and veg and mushroom. A wine sauce that simmered for 72 hours. The room falls silent as the mesmerized diners devour every mouthful.

3 – Porterhouse for Two at The Lounge

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There’s a secret restaurant in New York hidden among the tenements of Italian Harlem. It’s packed, and Wall Street lawyers rub shoulders with alleged gangsters as they press against the 100 year old wood paneled walls. And unless you’re one of the crowd, you can’t get in. The Lounge has all of that except the gangsters. Excited crowds, secret location (you go down an alley and hunt for a nondescript unmarked door), dark oak walls. And you can get in. The crowds are excited to be in such an elegant spot (waiters sport bow ties and suspenders) but they’re even more excited by the perfectly prepared martinis and by the steak. The aged USDA Prime porterhouse for two is slathered in butter, then cooked to perfection in a 1400 degree oven. Then it’s sliced for service and the tasty mixture of butter and carnal juices poured on each slice. Then it gets a few seconds in the oven to cook the butter, and then it’s served. In 1995, veteran restaurant reviewer Ruth Reichl described the moment in Peter Luger, New York’s legendary steakhouse that uses the exact same cooking technique. “When the waiter appears with the platter,” Reichl wrote, “he stands there spooning a mixture of butter and meat juices across the sizzling porterhouse in an exercise of pure theater. He is merely prolonging the moment, allowing the aroma to revive all your primal instincts as he stretches out the time until you can actually sink your teeth into the flesh.” And that’s how it is here. One bite and you’ll know why I had to put this dish on my list.

4 – Grilled Octopus at Temp Tavern

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A small boy watches as the vacant weedy lot at the edge of town is transformed into a wonderland of varied and unimaginable delights. The circus is in town. I’ll never know how that small boy felt, but Tulsa got a taste of it this summer when, for a few magical weeks, Temporary Tavern moved in. The Tavern’s building on Brady was being remodeled and Trevor, Ben, Mark and the rest of the Tavern crew relocated the restaurant in a vacant space farther east, recreating it each week, like a pop-up, with a new menu, no holds barred and with no limits. One week it was Mexican Pacific, another week Moroccan, another week Brazilian Grill. Food was served on carving boards and sometimes you could get a whole fresh mackerel (rare even in New York) or branzino fresh from the grill or, during Mexican Pacific week, even an octopus. The kitchen and chefs’ area weren’t separated from the dining area. There was excitement in the air and you could feel it. Trevor Tack was especially excited about Mexican Pacific week. “I created the whole menu around one postcard image. You’re in a little fishing village in Baja and they’re grilling just-caught octopus on a fire by the beach.” This is that octopus. It’s one of the best dishes of the year.

5 – Halibut with Crawfish and house-made boudin at Bodean

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Bodean is the farthest thing from a temporary or casual un-restaurant that you can imagine. Go every day and enjoy the haute cuisine creations of Exec Chef Jared Chamberlain, impeccably served by a waitstaff worthy of a palace. (“They made me feel like a princess!” one lady told me.) But on Sunday and Monday another option sails in below everyone’s radar. That’s the three-course $35 tasting menu designed by Chef Tony Godoy. The stunning dishes change each week and any one of them could have made this list. But I’ve chosen one served around Christmastime. Halibut in a rich and colorful sherry broth studded with crawfish and accented by a house-made boudin prepared by Bodean’s new lunch chef, who hails from New Orleans.

THE RESTAURANTS

The next three dishes were revealed in the TulsaFood list of dishes published last Tuesday. They are…

6 – Duck Breast from The Chalkboard

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7 – Halibut Filet from Bodean (not pictured)

Could be the best dish of the year. Chef Antonio Godoy’s new creation at Bodean is a definite contender. A halibut filet is topped with a thin slice of well-buttered homemade bread, then baked. The bread seals in moisture and the butter melts and spreads its goodness. Underneath is a ragout of trumpet mushrooms and rock shrimp with meat demi-glace. The dabs of “shaving cream” are sabayon sauce. Tony has reconfigured this traditional dessert sauce, substituting 4-year aged gouda for sugar, to make it the perfect complement to the fish.

8 – Pork Chop from The Tavern

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Here’s the Double Bone Pork Chop. Now pork chops are definitely a part of the Tavern tradition. Ben and Mark have taken the chop to a new level of goodness. It used to be that the first 5 or 6 customers each night could order the prized double bone chop, so thick that if you imagine the vegetables as barbarian invaders, the chop towered above them like the Great Wall of China. Now this unbelievably thick chop is all they serve. “If you grill that baby,” says Ben, “it will be all dried out and the middle will still be raw. So we sous-vide it at 135 degrees, then give it a good hard sear and it’s done. It’s simple, it’s easy and when you bite into it you get first the crisp sweet apple slices, then the crunch of pistachios, and then — BANG — the perfect pork.

 

For the final two, I’ve tried to choose new dishes from new restaurants. Because, face it, just about any dish from Tallgrass, Polo, Stonehorse, and several other places would be a worthy contender for this list. Earlier in the year I was served one of the best steaks of my life at Mahogany, a never-seen-before special of a Cowboy Ribeye dry-aged for 6 weeks ($90 and worth it). And, had I not features from them already, I surely would have listed the whole pig served at the Tavern one glorious night in April. Nevertheless, following are the final two dishes on my top 10 list for 2015. I’ve also limited my list to the dinner hour. This was the year I finally got to try all those amazing Tulsa surprises which are available only by daylight. Breakfast at the Bramble, a huge plate large enough to feed six at BurnCo (and I ate more than half of it on the spot), and those amazing po-boys at Lassalle’s. If not for these restrictions, my list would be swamped by these and by the Tallgrass crew, and would feature half the Bramble breakfast dishes and every magnificent Tallgrass appetizer made with grilled pork belly, because these little gems just might be the best apps in this fair city.

9 – Pork Chop at Franklin’s in Broken Arrow

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This chop is the kind of food that you’ll find at Franklin’s Pork and Barrel. It’s flamboyant yet casual. It’s deceptively simple yet takes days to make. It backs a massive flavor punch. The chef favors smoking and grilling. That’s not surprising when the chef is Doug Zimpel, who used to be Exec. Chef of the Boston Deli. The meat has a rich smoky flavor. It’s tender and juicy. The stripe running through it is the stuffing, made of chorizo and cornbread, and it adds another meaty taste to the flavor mix. The “skillet corn” is a succotash of corn and peppers and it too has a nice smoky taste. And at only $13 it’s an absolute steal.

10 – Pernil at Taino’s

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It’s worth going to Taino’s, Tulsa’s first and only Puerto Rican restaurant, just to see Ismael Ortiz, the energetic, excitable chef and host. But he’s a Bodean alumnus, so it’s no surprise his cooking is a treat. So get a plate of pernil. It’s pork shoulder. It’s so yummy, crispy crackly and tender all at the same time. “I marinated it for days,” Ismael explains, “and then slow-cooked for six hours.” And don’t forget to stop for a fried pie on the way home at nearby Fulton’s Pies on Kenosha.

And that’s the list! Happy eating in 2016!

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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