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It was one of the more unusual questions that has been asked since we’ve been tasked with writing about restaurants for the Tulsa World.
“All these dishes that you describe,” one person wanted to know, “do you actually eat them?”
Either to my chagrin or my credit, I had to answer, yes — if I describe a particular foodstuff in detail, it is because I have personally consumed said item.
Which means that, over the past 12 months, I’ve had a lot of things to eat. Some have been incredibly good. Some have been distressingly mediocre. And only a few were so lacking in positive qualities that I couldn’t bring myself to say anything about them. In this day and age, it’s all too easy to be needlessly cruel.
It’s also true that the whole process of assessing the quality of anything — be it ballet or barbecue — is a highly subjective process. One endeavors to be as fair as possible, to judge what is on the plate on its own merits, which can aspire to the heights of haute cuisine, or be as simple as turning out a decent cheeseburger.
As always, this list of the 10 best restaurants is based strictly on new restaurants that were reviewed during the calendar year of 2021.
However, if we were to name our most memorable meals of the year, this list would be topped by Lowood Modern Woodfire, which was named the Best Restaurant of 2019 but this year underwent a significant change under new chef Bobby Benjamin. Practically every bite was a drop-the-fork-oh-my-goodness moment, which is something one rarely experiences anywhere.
However, a number of restaurants new on the scene served up meals and dishes that were worthy of highest praise. And, by sheerest coincidence, the first and last restaurants reviewed for this year made the 2021 10 Best New Restaurants list.
1. Rustic Chop House
210 S. Main St., Broken Arrow
This newcomer to the Rose District is a gem. Its tomahawk pork chop was easily the best example of this hard-to-master cut I’ve ever had — perfectly tender and succulent from first bite to last. Steaks are of an equally high caliber, as are such items as the smoked duck appetizer and the creamy leek and potato soup, which is good enough to warrant a few return trips.
2. Little Venice
208 N. Main St., Sand Springs
Owners Candi and Walter Munaretto have brought the flavors of Northern Italy to this west Tulsa suburb, serving superb food in a comfortable yet classy setting. Menus change weekly, depending on what ingredients are fresh and available. Saltimbocca, a classic dish of sauteed veal topped with sage and prosciutto, is a standout dish. Even something as seemingly simple as Pappardelle di Fungi, or egg noodles with wild mushrooms, has an extraordinary depth of flavor.
3. La Tertulia
James Beard Award-winning chef Kevin Nashan pays homage to his family history with this restaurant that serves up contemporary takes on the New Mexican cuisine that drew travelers to his grandparents’ Santa Fe restaurant. The menu is not extensive, but it is varied; newcomers might wish to start with the deluxe combination dinner, which gives one a fairly comprehensive sampling of what La Tertulia can do, with a taco, a rolled blue-corn enchilada, a tamale, a chili relleno and a good portion of carne adovada, which is chunks of pork shoulder simmered in a rich and spicy red chili sauce, rice, pinto beans and pozole, or hominy.
4. Oakhart Barbecue
Co-owners Brian Hodges and Chris Emmons wanted to bring the sort of Central Texas barbecue made famous by such pitmasters as Aaron Franklin — I’ve never been to Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas, but if it is producing the sort of barbecue that Oakhart does, I can understand why people wait in line for hours. The ribs, brisket and house-made sausage are among the standout entrees, but sides such as cheesy grits more than hold their own.
The latest concept from restaurateur Amelia Eesley, overseen by chef Andrew Donovan, features foods from the Basque region, an area that straddles the Spanish-French border, and which draws its cuisine equally from the land and sea. The small plates encourage sharing, although there might be some dishes one will want to keep to oneself, such as the salt-baked petrale sole, the charred Spanish octopus, the Basque-style snails, tender to the point of creaminess, in a lively, potent sauce of bacon and choricero peppers.
6. in the raw VU
The latest incarnation of this popular local sushi establishment is located atop the Vast.Bank building, just across the street from ONEOK Field. This provides diners with some impressive views of the city, but the food served here does its best to put the scenery to shame. While the menu mimics what’s served at other In The Raw restaurants, In The Raw VU is used as something of a testing ground for the chefs and their newest creations, some of which are available only here. These include the Hot Crab Roll, a sizable serving of baked crab encased in a thick layer of rice and wrapped in a sesame soy paper, and the Shrimp and Scallop Ceviche, loaded with finely chopped mango, tomato, jalapeño, onion and cilantro, and dotted with tiny pieces of scallop and chopped shrimp.
Chef Sergio Vilar uses some 20 ingredients and endless hours to make the mole sauce used on several of the dishes at Madre’s — when he says, “You can taste generations in that sauce,” it is not hyperbole. The menu includes such rarely seen dishes as cochinita pibil, a braised pork specialty from the Yucatan, and pork belly chicharrones, as well as more familiar items such as enchiladas and tacos that benefit from Vilar’s unique salsas and sauces.
8. Wildflower Cafe
When a restaurant makes a grilled cheese sandwich using house-made pimento cheese, then actually griddles the cheese to create a crisp, caramelized layer over the rest of the creamy, tangy mixture, one can be sure this place takes the concept of comfort food seriously. Chef and owner Heather Linville does just that at Wildflower Cafe, making food that is simple, real, fresh and well-made. Try the Snickerdoodle waffle with house-made cinnamon syrup or the biscuits and gravy for breakfast, or sample one of the regular lunch specials, such as the full Thanksgiving dinner available every Thursday.
9. Tacos x Mezcal
These are not your abuela’s tacos. Chef Sebastian Renner elevates Mexico’s humblest street food into high-level cuisine, from guacamole flavored with paddlefish roe or toasted crickets to compact tacos that pack an inordinate amount of flavor. We particularly enjoyed the taco de camarón — essentially a roasted Anaheim chili stuffed with shrimp, and wrapped in well-cooked bacon — and the taco de pescado swordfish coated in a tempura-like batter and fried, with cabbage, carrot, guacamole and a chipotle aioli.
Chef Shadi Afshari offers authentic Mediterranean dishes, from such familiar items as lamb chops, to more exotic dishes such as zereshk polo, a saffron-flavored braised chicken over barberry rice; and fesenjoon, or walnut stew, a thick, almost chocolate brown, and surprisingly fruity broth, stocked with pureed walnuts and pomegranate seed, and pieces of white-meat chicken. Those making the first foray in this cuisine might consider the Mediterranean Mazzeh, a selection of appetizers, or the kabob combo platter.
Those eateries that just missed the top spots:
918 Maples Cafe & Catering, 8151 E. 21st St.: Excellent birria tacos headline a wide-ranging menu at this small restaurant.
Radish, 1730 S. Boston Ave.: “Midwesterranean” food that brings some Okie flair to Mediterranean cuisine. Superb roast chicken, pita sandwiches and mezze treats.
Cherry Street Kitchen, 111 W. Fifth St.: Relocated from its original 15th Street location, the new Cherry Street Kitchen offers an expanded menu as well as full bar service.
Day Break Cafe, 8178 S. Lewis Ave.: Fans of the old First Watch will find most of their favorites, as well as some new twists, at this breakfast-and-lunch restaurant.
Brick Bros. Pizza, 2 W. Dawes Ave., Bixby: Quality ingredients, unique combinations and a brick oven make for such excellent pizza, well worth the trip south.
Inheritance Juicery, 108 S. Detroit Ave.: Healthy libations are the star here, but the lunch menu is full of vegan-forward items.
Calaca Fresh Mexican, 6902 S. Lewis Ave.; 3202 S. Sheridan Road: California-style Mexican food — the rice and beans are good enough to order by themselves.
Gambill’s Wine & Coffee, 1102 S. Lewis Ave.: Spanish-style tapas and coffee preparations, as well as local, national and international wines.
Curds & Whey, 1124 S. Lewis Ave.: Chef Faith Walker describes what she does as “sophisticated comfort food,” with such items as the Very Berry Salad and the Cali Girl ($13) with fresh avocado, candied bacon and a zesty ranch; topping great fries.
Salt & Vinegar, 1124 S. Lewis Ave.: Few places are recommended for their Brussels sprouts, but few places make them the way Salt & Vinegar does, frying and seasoning them into a sweet and tangy treat. The rest of the menu’s pretty good as well.
This year has been a more difficult one than usual for local restaurants, with many long-time Tulsa culinary landmarks closing their doors. Among the restaurants that served their final meals in 2021:
Lassalle’s New Orleans Deli; Flavors of New Orleans; Oklahoma Joe’s (downtown location — temporarily closed); Vista at the Boathouse (Gathering Place — temporarily closed); The Boiler Room at the Mayo Hotel; Cyprus Grille at Renaissance Hotel; Celebrity Restaurant; Elmer’s Barbecue; Esperanza Bakery; Tandoori Guys Express; Fox & Hound; Freddie’s Hamburgers (Lewis Avenue and Admiral Boulevard locations); Poke Bowl Love; Miami Nights Lounge & Restaurant; First Watch; Dixie Cafe (Coweta); Senor Tequila (Mingo Road location); Abu Omar Halal; Felizsta.