Oklahoma City is a fun town, especially downtown, where there are a few pockets of renewal that have spawned some local restaurants and shops worth visiting. I didn’t get to explore as much as I would have liked, since I had to head out to Norman, Yukon, and Midwest City, but found three places worth strong recommendations.
I returned to Ludivine, which was the star from my visit to OKC last year, and it was even better the second time around. It’s a farm-to-table restaurant with a pretty simple menu – a house-made charcuterie selection, four starters (including salads), four mains, and a few desserts, with everything but the seafood sourced locally. Last time I went with several small plates, but this time one of the entrees was calling me: Walnut Creek mangalitsa pork with potato gnocchi, winter greens (mostly green kale), grana padano, and pork jus with mustard seeds. The gnocchi were a little soft but that contrasted well with the thinly sliced but fully cooked pork (made from a Hungarian breed, related to wild boar, with richer, fattier meat than the common American pig) and the crunch of the curly kale leaves. The broth was the best part of the dish, with the unctuous feel and umami-rich flavor of a stock, but well-balanced with the spice and saltiness of the mustard.
The dessert was even better – a white chocolate and lavender cookie, served warm at the bottom of a ramekin, topped with a chocolate-orange semifreddo, fig syrup, and cassis whipped cream. It’s hard to explain how the dessert worked together, as the whole was far more than the sum of its parts. The lead flavor was dark chocolate, but there were also hints of marshmallow, caramel, and the suggestion of lavender (which I like in tiny doses but which can make a cookie taste like perfume if it’s overdone). This represents culinary artistry to me – the ability to combine ingredients or elements so that, when tasted together, they add up to something greater and unexpected. Ludivine also has a full bar with its own mixologist(s) and had a couple of local beers on tap, including a Coop Gran Sport Porter that I found too cloying and syrupy.
Just a few doors north on Hudson Street is the roastery and cafe Elemental Coffee, a shop for serious coffee snobs, with three different roasts available for pour-overs and their own espresso blend that combines beans from Mexico and Ethiopia. My first test of coffee in any form is whether I can drink it without needing sugar to hide any bitterness or harsh notes, and both the drip and espresso blends (for drip I went with an Ecuadorian bean, their most expensive drip coffee at $3.25) passed. They also have a small selection of food items, including crepes on weekend mornings and a local yogurt/granola combination that, while a little small for breakfast, is excellent, with dried blueberries sprinkled on the plain yogurt and a cinnamon-spiced granola full of sliced almonds and pumpkin seeds. The barista I had on Sunday informed me that Nick Offerman of Parks & Rec loves both Elemental and Ludivine, further validating my selections.
East of downtown in Midwest City, I had some excellent fried chicken at a place that looked like it might need to be condemned, called Jim’s Fried Chicken. It’s nothing to look at on the outside but the chicken was perfectly fried, with a crispy crust that broke at first bite without shattering or falling off the meat. It was well-salted but not otherwise seasoned, at least not at a level I could detect. For $7, I got a drumstick, two thighs, two sides, and a drink; the fried okra was excellent and made to order while the beans-and-rice with sausage were excellent but a little on the spicy side, fine if I was only eating that but on top of fried chicken and fried okra it was a little more than I was looking for.
There isn’t much of a consensus around the best Q joint in Oklahoma City, but as far as I could tell Iron Starr BBQ was one of the contenders, although it’s a table-service restaurant with cloth napkins rather than your stereotypical (and often excellent) one-guy-and-a-smoker kind of place. The server suggested the St. Louis-style ribs and the brisket as their two best smoked meats, and the ribs were pretty special, coming right off the bone but still showing some real tooth, with a mild dry rub that wasn’t too peppery and a pronounced smoke flavor. The brisket was a little too dry and needed the sauce to compensate for that and the limited smoke ring. Iron Starr fries their okra whole rather than cutting it into bite-sized pieces, which is probably a good bit more healthful but left the okra inside slightly undercooked. The braised collard greens were, shockingly, undersalted. The square of jalapeno cornbread that came with the meal was excellent, but different in texture than you’d expect, more like a spoon bread than a crumbly southern cornbread. The “double-chocolate” bread pudding was more like a blondie with chocolate chips in it and a little melted white chocolate on top, too sweet for me to finish even halfway. I had a local beer here as well, Choc OPA (Oklahoma Pale Ale) at the server’s suggestion, but it was overwhelmingly citrusy, more like a wine cooler than a beer. I’d go back for the ribs and cornbread, and maybe to try a different protein, but would skip the brisket even though it’s quite popular.