There’s a row of elegant little tables right at the entrance to Amelia’s. I usually go to Amelia’s fairly early — word has spread and after 6 PM it can get crowded — and at that hour the setting sun bathes the starched white linen, the red leather banquettes, and the high brick walls in soft and magical light.
But on this visit, I saw a big crowd toward the back of the restaurant and I hurried through, walking past the long long bar. The bar was already crowded with businessmen and businesswomen closing out their workday. Liz Pounds was working the bar that evening, and if you haven’t met her you should. She’s as close as Tulsa comes to a celebrity bartender.
Beyond the bar, the restaurant imperceptibly merges with the kitchen, and that’s where I like to eat. There’s a counter that overlooks the cooking area, and it’s usually crowded with familiar faces in our local food industry. Sometimes you’ll be seated next to one of the local farmers who supply Amelia’s. Angela Faughtenberry of 413 Farms is a frequent customer, for example. You might see her talking to Kevin Snell, the Executive Chef, about the pigs and chickens she raises for the restaurant. “Angie’s become a friend”, Kevin told me, and he took his entire staff on a field trip out to Adair to see how pigs and chickens can and should be raised.
Every dish at Amelia’s is the product of slow, patient experimentation. For me, the ideal Saturday night involves a nightclub, friends, and dancing. For Kevin, it involves a bunch of chefs experimenting on an outdoor grill. And chances are he built the grill itself. “When I get creative and want to try a new cooking method, I build it,” he told me. Recently he catered a black-tie charity event. He built a massive outdoor grill; a steel cage from which meat hung over a huge iron plate that he forged himself using a plasma cutter in a welding shop, which he assembled in a big open park downtown near 3rd and Cincinnati.
Just about every time a restaurant opens, it’s owners boast that this new restaurant will show the world a totally new concept of food. Amelia’s really did. Fire. Just behind where Kevin tasted the chicken is an Argentine grill. Now this monster doesn’t look anything like Dad’s backyard grill, or a Hasty-Bake grill, or even the grills you see in Argentine restaurants. It looks like a wall of fire surrounded by heavy-duty yellow bricks. There are chains and cranks and shelves in the fire, and sweating people controlling the fire and throwing wood (white oak from Keystone) in the fire and generally looking like demons from Hell. I exaggerate a bit with the demons part — most of the cooking is done over the coals and embers once the wood burns down — but there is still an element of unpredictability about the fire. You can’t cook by recipe and timer, each piece of wood burns differently, and it’s all very dramatic and primal. “All food all over the world was originally cooked over fire,” says Amelia Eesley, the owner and founder. She doesn’t look the least bit primal. She’s gracious and elegant. But she did attend four years of drama school in New York.
I visited Amelia’s quite a few times in the months after it opened. The amazing food drew me back. The modern concept of cooking with fire started in Argentina, I think, and I found a cookbook by a famous Argentine chef named Francis Mallmann called “Seven Fires”. It listed seven different grilling methods using huge primal fires, and I was thrilled to realize that Amelia’s used six of the seven. According to a recent article in “Serious Eats”, these seven are
Parilla: A cast iron barbecue grate set over hot coals. Hibachis and kettle grills are examples Chapa: A flat piece of cast iron set over a fire. Similar to a griddle Infiernillo: Two fires with a cooking level between them. Literally translated to “small inferno.” Horno de Barro: A wood-fired oven Rescoldo: A method of cooking by covering the ingredients with hot embers and warm ashes Asador: A method of cooking whole animals, typically pig, goat, and lamb, which are butterflied and fastened with wires to an iron cross with two cross pieces Caldero: A large cast iron kettle or Dutch oven
For the first month or so, almost all of Amelia’s dishes used one of these methods, and the delicious food that resulted was a revelation. Pork or salmon cooked over the parilla had a rich, smoky flavor that rivaled or beat any barbecue I’d ever tasted. The Trout cooked on the chapa was a savory delight and immediately received rave reviews.
Next, there’s a horno de barro right next to the main grill. Many dishes get finished in there, including Amelia’s pizza which imediately surprised me by defying the rule that you’ll never get great pizza that’s not from a restaurant that specializes in pizza. Of course, it’s always a joy watching the line cooks tossing the pizza dough high in the air to stretch it, but their pizza preparation is not for show.
Kevin also uses Asador from time to time. He smokes his own ham and sausage, and that’s also what he was doing with that huge grill he built for the charity event. And, finally, you can always find some delicious eating coming from the caldero. There’s a pork belly entree that takes three days to make. It’s simmered for ages until the pork yields its flavor to the rich meaty, vaguely Mexican broth. And, Kevin also prepares beef tenderloin in the caldero, mixed with red wine pan sauce. “That’s my grandfather’s recipe,” Kevin says.
Those last two dishes (seen above), though, are simmered over a regular stove and not over the embers. For the past few months, Chef Kevin has been branching out, expanding, changing his concept. It’s no longer just about the fire. It’s about preparing the best possible dish using whatever cooking method works. Kevin’s dishes now use every technique in his repertory. In July, he served me Chicken “Osso Buco”. It’s made with chicken from Angela’s farm. The hindquarter is butterflied and tied to make a meaty mass. Then it simmers in a pan with a rich caramel-colored sauce. I ate delicious fresh roasted peppers as the chicken was briefly roasted in the wood-burning oven. Then it was finished in the pan with gremolata, and served to us. Amazing, a panoply of rich, surprising flavors and so tender you could eat it with a spoon.
I complimented Kevin on how his cooking style has evolved and he seemed surprised. “I just cook the food the way I’d like to eat it,” he told me. “What I cook depends on what fresh produce is available. I base my cooking method on that. Lately, there’s been a lot of fresh pepper.” Most chefs talk about their philosophy of cooking local. Kevin lives it. The rescoldo is wonderful today, he tells me, and has the chefs make me a plate. Market-fresh vegetables are buried in hot ashes until they cook. Then they go in a pan on the chapa. Then they are in front of me, a plate of brightly colored red and orange peppers, slices of potato and root vegetables, and a chunk of molten brie, all glistening with olive oil. I taste. Perfection. I look up to tell the chef. But he’s already on the other side of the kitchen, gathering the line cooks around him to talk about his latest idea.