Tulsa is in the throes of a dining renaissance
TULSA, Okla. — The roasted scallop dish at Oren is like something out of a Scandinavian fever dream had in Southeast Asia. They’re served in zingy green curry made with piquant yuzukosho, a citrusy paste spiced with chilis, and a garden’s worth of flavors — cilantro, mint, parsley, kaffir lime leaves, shallots. The dining room is spare and calming, like a Japanese teahouse reimagined for a coastal Norwegian town. And the servers and bartender are so friendly and chatty that all initial impressions of formality quickly vanish.
Oren sits 1,433 miles due east of Los Angeles and 1,350 miles due west of Manhattan. It’s located on South Peoria Street, in Tulsa, and if you go 2.4 miles up the road you’ll hit the Oklahoma stretch of Route 66, where once the only eateries were greasy spoon diners and the state’s famous burger joints. (Legend has it that the burger was first slapped between a bun at Tulsa’s still-operational Weber’s Root Beer Stand, a bit of folklore that remains inconclusive.)
But as I learned on a visit in April, like so many others in the Midwest and South, Tulsa is in the throes of a dining renaissance. You can chalk that up, in part, to hometown pride. Many people who leave their small-town homes for school or any number of other reasons later discover that the tug of their roots is greater than migratory impulses. Or you could chalk it up to gentrification and the rise of living expenses in major cities. Young chefs often work in kitchens of illustrious restaurants in big cities where compensation for line cooks can be meager and living costs are tremendous. But once they’ve shown their mettle and ultimately decide to open their own restaurant and start a family, cities with a lower cost of living and softer competition become very appealing.
Both of those reasons drove Oren’s chef-owners, husband and wife Matt and Yara Amberg, to look at business opportunities in Brookside, a residential neighborhood with lots of mom-and-pop shops where Matt grew up. They had both been cooking in high-end restaurants in New York City, but in 2014, they moved to Tulsa, and in 2017 they opened Oren, where Yara’s native Israel informs its locally sourced dishes.
“I like yuzu juice and Aleppo peppers and the aesthetic of what I find to be Arabic and Israeli cuisine — dishes that are sharable and vegetable-forward,” he told me.
Theirs is just one of the more recent entrants in Tulsa’s expanding restaurant community. A few of the restaurateurs that I chatted with point to Stonehorse Café, an elegant and handsome yet casual bistro, as an incubator for chefs and managers who’ve gone on to open their own spots. I stopped in for lunch on a Thursday afternoon; it was easy to see how its easygoing vibe and thoughtful from-scratch dishes inspired so many.
Stonehorse is about 2.5 miles outside of downtown in Utica Square, a shopping center. Part of what makes the renaissance exciting is that it’s contributing to the revitalization of the city’s downtown, a thriving business district decades ago, as evidenced by the abundant Art Deco buildings that remain from when throngs arrived in the 1920s and ’30s to seek their fortune in oil, transforming the frontier community into a commercially minded boomtown.
Amelia Eesley, a Stonehorse alum, opened Amelia’s in April 2017. It’s the heart of the Tulsa Arts District, a downtown area that’s been rejuvenated, thanks largely to the George Kaiser Family Foundation, a charitable organization run by the eponymous oil mogul and native son. It’s invested nearly $100 million in renewal projects in the District.
Amelia’s is a study in contrasts: exposed brick walls and dark wood furniture and paneling, all lightened by sweeping windows, hanging plants and dainty antique-style dishes. It’s a reflection of the cooking, which is to say delicately seasoned, mindfully flavored wood-fired food. The day I visited for lunch, there was a dolly of split wood logs in the middle of the restaurant, a delivery that would fuel the grill for at least a week.
That titanic Argentinian-style wood-fired grill is designed with modular grates to control the meat’s exposure to heat. It’s the domain of chef Kevin Snell, another Stonehorse alum, and it’s a fitting place for a kid from Arkansas to end up. He told me that he grew up in a cabin his dad built. They went on regular camping trips — always near a trout stream — and cooked the day’s catch on a campfire. All that practice makes a rather perfect trout dish. Named Campfire Rainbow Trout, it’s served with wood-fired broccoli, fine herbs, almonds, apricots, chimichurri, and brewers’ yeast. It often sells out.
As to be expected when a restaurant scene takes on its own momentum, restaurateurs tend to get edgier in their location choices. About a half-mile southeast of Amelia’s is Juniper, an airy and minimalist farmhouse-chic space. The building, across the street from the longstanding New Midtown Adult Superstore and a half-block from a Greyhound bus station, stood empty for a while, but eight years ago, the prolific restaurateur and chef Justin Thompson opened the seasonally driven restaurant in the space. Today reservations are suggested.
Thompson is a genial Tulsan who majored in philosophy and zoology in college, the former of which is evident in his cookbook, “Trial & Error,” which contains autobiographical text. He’d opened 10 restaurants — mostly for others — in 17 years. Juniper, the first he opened on his own, is a cornerstone of what’s become something of an empire that includes more than just restaurants. (See: a catering company, a café.) I learned that the empire has grown as much out of necessity as passion. Last October, when he heard that Farrell Family Bakery, from which he bought breads for his restaurants for 17 years, was going out of business, Thompson bought it. Today the bakery produces up to 50 different breads and pastries.
On the unseasonably warm Tuesday that I visited, it became apparent how wise Thompson was to not let the bakery shutter. Farrell’s delicious bread gets even better at Juniper when slathered with the day’s orange zest/black pepper/poppy seed/oregano butter. It was a lovely prelude to the blueberry-studded frissee pear salad and flavorful vegetarian muffaletta.
Chatting with Tulsans over the course of a few days — hip artists and friendly academics at bars, clerks at a bookstore and record store, the nighttime watchman at my hotel — I heard one recommendation repeatedly. Well, two recommendations repeatedly, one being: Did you have a burger yet? (“You know Tulsa is where the burger originated, right?” many said. “Go to Weber’s for a burger.”)
But the suggestion that piqued my interest more was this: go to Bird and Bottle.
It seemed that everyone knows Bird and Bottle, despite it only being open since March 2018 and located in strip mall outside downtown, tucked in a corner between a martial arts studio and a barber shop. The restaurant has a no-frills, welcoming dining room and a lounge; there’s a semi-open kitchen anchoring the horseshoe bar. The meals on the eclectic menu are at once casually familiar and glamorously defiant. I ordered a shrimp cocktail, jazzed up with lemongrass and green curry, and the lamb ravioli, decadent parcels of meat, pea, mint, and ricotta in a white wine sauce.
The restaurant is co-owned by Johnna Hayes, who grew up down the street. Her parents, she told me, came on dates here when it was Saint Michael’s Alley, a classic burger joint. The executive chef is Stephen Lindstrom, a Tulsa native who talks of using “random things you might not find in Tulsa” in his cooking. He always wanted to be a butcher, not necessarily a chef, and he’s adamant about butchering whole animals in-house and using every last scrap. (ie: those “random things,” like chicken livers and gizzards. He also clarifies the pig fat into lard for baking.) He often ends up using other parts of the animal in his pates for cheeseboards and sausages.
The night I visited, I sat at the bar and chatted with a couple — a leather jacket-clad anthropology professor at the University of Tulsa and his wife, a school teacher — who’d been visiting the locale since it was Michael’s. (It’s had two incarnations after that.) As she sipped her wine, Bird and Bottle’s own fruit-forward blend of chardonnay made at another owner’s son’s California vineyard, she remarked, “My sister lives in Los Angeles and she loves to come visit me and go out to eat. So much here in town is just so unique.”