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The culinary cutting edge

Metro restaurants are serving up more than just fancy food.

Marisa Mohi July 31st, 2013

It’s hard to quantify all the recent changes in Oklahoma City.

Chef Russ Johnson of Ludivine
BY: Shannon Cornman
New business concepts are popping up daily, and just as the city has undergone a rebirth, so, too, have its culinary offerings.

Restaurants such as Ludivine, 805 N. Hudson, and Tamazul, 5820 N. Classen Blvd., in Oklahoma City and Local, 2262 W. Main, in Norman are changing not only the way such places do business, but also the way customers think about food.

In an area once dominated by bland chain restaurants with generic fare, local eateries increasingly are carving out a niche for themselves doing exactly the opposite of what proves so profitable for chains. Restaurants such as these are at the forefront of a new movement in Oklahoma — a movement toward a new model of dining.

Ludivine’s chef and co-owner Russ Johnson said the daily changing menu is “sort of a luxury. It’s just the ultimate in flexibility and adaptability.”

Jonathon Stranger, also chef and co-owner of Ludivine, said he thinks “diners are willing to spend a little bit more” to get a better meal and dining experience, as well as the variety of a menu sourced by many local farms like Early Bird Acres and Walnut Creek Farms. The menu also features items like roasted bone marrow and lamb burgers, both unique and locally sourced offerings.

Diners, said Stranger, are “more conscious of what their dollar is going toward” these days.

It’s this consciousness that allows a restaurant to mix up its practices and offerings in ways that don’t always align with what’s traditionally been a more profitable paradigm.

And yet, in many cases, this difference is what makes these places successful. Perhaps the most cutting-edge aspect of restaurants like Ludivine, Tamazul and Local isn’t the food. Sure, their menus contain some of the most innovative offerings in the metro, but the missions behind the restaurants are what is remarkable.

Fresh, local produce at Local
BY: Shannon Cornman
Educated eating
At Local, general manager Heather Steele said it “strives to incorporate as many local ingredients” and work with the farmers “to put things on the menu that are seasonal.” In addition to not following the common model of using prepared foods and a traditional food broker, Local is devoted to finding as many ingredients locally as it can — and even basing menus off what is seasonal rather than creating dishes and then finding the ingredients.

Chef Kyle Mills said he believes this way of doing things is possible because “people are educating themselves ... to try to eat better and seek out places that are making everything from scratch and in-house.”

In addition, restaurants are more willing to share the information behind the food, whether it’s the inspiration behind dishes, where the ingredients come from or why it’s served a specific way.

The group behind Tamazul, an upscale Mexican restaurant in Classen Curve, values education as important in restaurants’ ability to deviate from a menu that the majority of diners might expect.

“We’re not afraid to explain why we’re doing what we’re doing,” said its general manager, Vivian Wood.

Such interaction, she said, lets customers understand the reasoning behind food choices. In turn, that allows chefs to utilize spices and unique food combinations to which the Oklahoma palate might not be accustomed.

Chef Ryan Parrott of Tamazul
BY: Shannon Cornman
New thinking
Tamazul’s bar features craft mezcals, a spirit that Rob Crabtree, director of operations, acknowledged is new for the market.

“We didn’t know how it was going to do in Oklahoma,” he admitted. “Once we started talking to them about the spirit, people wanted more and more.”

Ryan Parrott, Tamazul’s executive chef, sees the changes as indicative of something larger.

“As a whole, we’ve gotten to be a little bit smarter and a little bit more aware,” he said. “As a city and state, we’ve changed our thinking.

Rather than serve the customary queso that many diners are used to, Tamazul features queso a la plancha — cheese that has been grilled and then served with pickled chile, tequila and lime.

While these restaurants are refashioning how Oklahomans dine out, they still face considerable obstacles. Finding local sources, adapting the menu to changing seasons, offering truly new and unique items and fighting against eateries that use “local” and “farm-to-table” more as buzzwords than as a real approach — these are among the challenges these restaurants are facing amid Oklahoma’s evolving dining scene.

For diners, it means more options, more health-conscious offerings and diverse experiences.

For the chefs and restaurateurs, it’s about the culture. It’s about the drive to create a dish to stand behind. It’s about making more informed decisions about where food actually comes from. And it’s about communicating passion through food, brand and a unique environment.

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