January 4th, 2013 by Brian Schwartz – Comments (4)
A few weeks ago Saveur Magazine included Juniper Restaurant in its yearly Top 100 list. There it was at number 22 with a huge photo of Justin Thompson. The list is a big deal, reported by newsmedia nationwide and endlessly dissected by foodie blogs. That’s the first time a Tulsa restaurant has, as far as I know, has been thus honored or even mentioned in the august pages of the New York City-based Saveur. Juniper deserves it. Oh there are other chefs in Tulsa who merit such accolades, and if you’ve been reading my reviews you know who they are. But what sets Juniper apart from the rest is this: they design a whole new menu every week. On Sunday and Monday, when the restaurant closes, the chefs are still busy. They meet with local farmers and suppliers and plan the menu around the best local produce available that week. Usually the menus have themes. Creative, innovative, showcasing the best produce and elevating that humble produce to a level both unique and inspirational, almost without exception these menus shine.
For the past several months, Chef Justin has been busy elsewhere, building, organizing and opening a world-class steakhouse downtown. (If you don’t know about Phryme Steakhouse, read my long review from last Friday.) During that time, every one of these menus has been designed by PAUL WILSON. His name’s in caps because he deserves to be recognized. When future historians chronicle (if they ever find the time to do it) the history of Tulsa’s remarkable recent culinary renaissance, they will say that the arrival of Paul Wilson and Ian van Anglen in Tulsa (where they cooked together at that amazing and amazingly short-lived restaurant The Kitchen) is a watershed moment comparable to Jonathan Waxman and Wolfgang Puck deciding to head west to California in the late 1970s. Here are Paul (right) and Ian cooking at The Kitchen in 2010.
Paul Wilson is a chef from Minneapolis who is trained in classic French cuisine. He learned it in the old-fashioned way, becoming an apprentice, which pretty much means unpaid kitchen slave, and slowly working his way up. He landed a job working with renowned master chef Rene Bajeux, who was born in France but ended up in New Orleans. Though Rene’s cooking was classic French, Paul picked up a love for Louisiana and its food — not the prissy pretentious Creole cuisine of the big city, but the Cajun food of the backwoods bayou. He showcased these dishes when he cooked for Lunabread, but lately it’s his classic French side that is at the forefront. Of course he’s helped by his immensely talented young staff, and you’ll probably be hearing a lot about those guys in future years.
In fact, it’s those guys who are responsible for the most recent meal I’ve had at Juniper. That week Paul let them design the menu unaided. Each chef designed two dishes. The dishes I had were so extraordinary I told the chefs that if I ever got around to making a Top Ten Dishes of 2012, those dishes would be on the list. I started with a dish designed by Chef Roque Heidler: bacon marinated in, as I recall, juniper berries and Pernod. The bacon shone like lacquer. It was perfect: crisp but not too crunchy, with incredible flavor somehow highlighted by that unlikely plant and liquor combination. Alongside was an amazingly good apple potato bread pudding. Soft, creamy, robust, with a somehow fleshy tang, it reminded me of the best dressing I’ve had in my life — my Mom’s of course, which I had thought was lost forever. I thought this was the best dish of the year until the next dish came along.
I once heard it said (about Jean-Georges Vongerichten in New York) that the mark of a genius chef is that he can take ingredients that you’d think would be horrific mixed together and make it work so well that you wonder why you hadn’t eaten that pairing all the time. This dish does that. Scallops and squid ink and ice cream??? Oh yes. Chef Tim Slavin triumphs. Delicious grilled scallops form an island in a jet-black lake of squid ink puree. The ink was salty, tangy, redolent of the sea. It paired perfectly with the scallops. Off to the left, a mound of crispy celery root, mixed with pancetta and sherry vinaigrette. It had a sharp, rich slightly bitter taste that was a great contrast to the scallops. On top of that, a big scoop of celery root ice cream. Ice cream! And it worked. Although the ice cream was a tiny bit too sweet, it was designed to have a strong salty aftertaste, and that’s what made it fit in. I think this was the best dish I’ve eaten all year. Keep an eye on Tim Slavin. (For the rest of that incredible menu, see http://www.junipertulsa.com/storage/menus/chefs’%20menu.pdf I bet the duck breast was great too.)
Now let’s get back to dishes created by Paul Wilson. Do you want to know what a world-class meal, worthy of any restaurant anywhere, looks like? Well I had one in early August at Juniper, so have a look. This was from their Fig and Cherry menu. The first course was smooth, unctuous foie gras, cherry-glazed and sandwiched between two sweet pancake-like almond-studded blinis. Then came this.
A juicy lamb chop, rich in fat and spices and accented by a rich cherry sauce, a few slices of flavorful venison, fresh local veggies: okra, cherry tomatoes, beans. And, incredibly under it all, a sweet flan made with fresh figs and cured duck meat. Wow!!! Meanwhile, my date had pork and cherries, not as good as my dish but still worthy of mention.
Earlier that summer I feasted on soft-shell crab.
Deep fried and served with stone grits, bacon aioli, and pepper jelly, it was crunchy, complex, rich and memorable. My only cavil was that the ineffable soft-shell flavor was upstaged by everything else. But every bite was a delight.
A week or so later, there was an unusual menu of deconstructed and reinvented dishes. Whatever the name, it featured an amazing beer soup.
A rich soup studded with luscious duck confit, mascarpone, brown fig, and popcorn. It was a meal in itself but I decided to order something else.
A “deconstructed pozole” with seared pork loin, hominy, and red chili broth. Not as good as the soup but still a worthy dish.
I wanted so much to go back the week after that. Local tomatoes were the theme of the menu.
This beautiful dish is a lobster, bacon, and tomato tian served with mussels and saffron tomato nage. A tian is a layered Provencal dish and I really wanted this one. But I couldn’t find a girl to accompany me that week so I didn’t go. (Ladies, see what you missed!) But I made up for it a week later. It was a seafood menu and I greedily devoured this.
Grilled lobster tail and shrimp with pan fried polenta, grilled sage vegetables, and roasted garlic horseradish cream. Yum!
I didn’t go back till late October. It was a charity event, a Pink menu. Everything was pink! I started with this.
Lobster and beet pasta with pistachio pesto, kohlrabi, and red wine cream. A bit blander than I’d expect but still yummy. And oh that wacky color! After that I ordered scallops two ways. On one side, bay scallops braised in red wine, on the other side, two foie gras stuffed diver scallops, and in between was a fennel risotto with a red wine reduction. Another solid dish. (The rest of the menu is viewable here. http://www.junipertulsa.com/storage/pink%20menu.pdf )
A few weeks later was an English menu. I don’t think of English food as being haute cuisine, but these dishes made me change my mind. I started with a Yorkshire pudding with applewood bacon gravy. This was cooked a bit too crisp for my taste but the next dish made up for that.
Beef Wellington is one of the few classic English dishes. It’s complex and very difficult to make. Beef is coated in pate and duxelles (that’s a mix of chopped mushrooms and onions sauteed in butter), then it’s wrapped in dough and baked like a loaf of bread! It should be golden-brown and this one wasn’t, and had some raw dough inside, but somehow this just improved the flavor. It was delicious! Finally I have eaten English haute cuisine.
At some point I’ll probably make a Ten Best Dishes of 2012 list. But if I don’t find time to do that, the dishes described above can be that list. I’ve heard that Paul Wilson might leave soon to open up his own restaurant. So hurry and try his menus! And if you can’t, rest assured that his talented staff will carry on the Juniper tradition.
324 E. 3rd Street (at Elgin)
http://www.junipertulsa.com (this week’s menu is usually on the website, under “Weekly Specials”)
open Tuesday through Saturday 4 PM to 11 PM (lunch is served earlier but does not include the weekly menu)
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.