by Andrew Chalk
The Moll and I decided to visit Oklahoma City for a long weekend. I wanted some insight into interesting places to eat. That ruled out Yelp reviews (non credible) and Trip Advisor (estimates are that a third of the reviews there are fake). Youtube videos were mainly pathetic, superficial, amateurish and didn’t declare when meals were comped. I asked my social media friends, who had proven a reliable and ruthlessly honest guide for other cities such as New Orleans and Charleston. I got just one suggestion. I appealed for suggestions in a Facebook chefs group. Nothing.
It seemed that I had joined the ranks of those who had hit a dry hole in OKC.
Then, the week before our trip, the James Beard awards released their lists of finalists. In the category “Best Chef, Southwest" no fewer than two of the five finalists were from OKC. Bingo!
JAMES BEARD AWARDS FINALISTS 2023
Best Chef: Southwest (AZ, NM, NV, OK)
· Oscar Amador, Anima by EDO, Las Vegas, NV
· Kaoru Azeuchi, KAISEKI YUZU, Las Vegas, NV
· Andrew Black, Grey Sweater, Oklahoma City, OK
· Jeff Chanchaleune, Ma Der Lao Kitchen, Oklahoma City, OK
· Justin Pioche, Pioche Food Group, Upper Fruitland (Doolkai), Navajo Nation, NM
That result chose dinner for us on two nights.
IS GREY SWEATER THE SOONER MICHELIN-STARRED RESTAURANT?
Andrew Black the chef/owner of Grey Sweater, is embarking on a project in Oklahoma that some would consider the culinary equivalent of a moonshot. Consider the following:
Grey Sweater offers a choice of two two tasting menus. Seven courses for $137 or ten for $187. When you book, you choose a menu. We chose the seven;
You do not know the dishes on your menu until you eat them;
There are three tiers of wine pairing choices you can choose when booking, or you may choose on the night. The tiers are priced at $100, $150, and $200;
After you book, a concierge calls you to customize your experience. Any dietary restrictions? An overview of why they have wine pairings. Is it a special occasion? I had told OpenTable that it was a birthday because it was our dog’s birthday. I know what you are thinking but no, she would not be at the dinner. It was a joke that I thought would be without consequences (more on that below);
A credit card guarantees your reservation and can be canceled for a refund up to 48 hours beforehand. Cancel within the 48-hour window and the card is charged the meal price plus tax and gratuity and a Grey Sweater gift card issued for a future meal.
The above details are important for a number of reasons. One is that they refer to policies that are unique or idiosyncratic to Grey Sweater. They offer a journey back to the early days of eating out where hostelries offered what the chef had found to be good on the day. To this chef, the construction of a night’s menu is like the composition of a symphony written on the day of the performance. So it is fatuous to expect him to know the menu days in advance.
The credit card guarantee is a growing trend, and a good one in my view. We currently have a bizarre system where no-shows are not penalized. The cost in terms of empty tables and wasted food is borne by those who do show up. An unjust set of arrangements.
AT THE MEAL
We walked from our hotel for our early reservation and arrived at Grey Sweater’s (unmarked) front door to find it locked. After peering in the windows of the co-owned restaurant next door (Black Walnut), and starting to walk over there, the Man Himself appeared at the secret door to open it. Apparently just a mechanical problem with the handle, and most people drive and come in the back via the garage.
Having been conservative in estimating walking time we were almost 15 minutes early so sat at the bar until seated at exactly (!) the time of our reservation.
There are half a dozen tables set in the room with the bar, and there is another room with the open kitchen and bar ringed with bar seating. The room is tidy modern with quirky light fixtures in the ceiling, and lots of grey livery. The ample spacing makes for comfortable noise levels.
There is no written menu. Dishes arrive like asynchronous RPG rounds to be copiously explained by the waiting staff.
AN ODD WINE SERVICE
Wines, cocktails, and beer are available but there is something very unusual about the wine service. If you want to order from the list (rather than the pairings) there is not a written list. The restaurant expects you to describe a style of wine you would enjoy and they will go back to the cellar and match it with what is available. This does not work. There is just too much elastic in the language of wine descriptions to pin the customer’s choice to the restaurant inventory. The written list is a technology to solve that.
In my case two problems occurred. First, I asked for a dry white from northern Europe, expecting a Sancerre or Jura wine, and the bottle that appeared was a dry German Riesling. The dry white part worked but I did not nail the desired organoleptic characteristics. It was also served too warm (that could cost chef Black his third star!).
Later, I was specific about the grape and region: “Loire Valley Chenin Blanc”, but they simply did not have one. The waiter suggested a South African chenin blanc. This turned out to be out of stock but, from the premium list, a Clos de la Coulée de Serrant was obtained. There were also substitutions among reds. We asked for a glass of pinot noir from the Californian Central Coast or Russian River Valley but they did not have one. A Burgundy from the Côte Chalonnaise was the offered substitute. These were good wines but my point is, imagine how these decisions would have gone with the conventional written list. Or better still, a tablet wine list where the user who wants to choose by their own criterion, say style, can do so against a known cellar. In a later conversation with Chef Black he seemed open to considering a list.
THE FOOD ARRIVES
There were no amuses, or bread. It was straight into the first course. A cone of batter filled with an intoxicatingly smooth purée of cauliflower dotted with pepita (pumpkin) seeds. I love memorable food composed from prosaic ingredients. All chef craft, no crutch of luxury ingredients. This was a strong start.
Two glasses of Champagne then arrived (slightly out of sequence - that could rob chef Black of his third star) in honor of our celebration. The dog, in day care, could not partake but she will get one of the biscuits that the hotel doorman keeps for canine visitors, TSA permitting. The Champagne Aubry Brut was stellar, having older vintages in the cuvée boosting the autolyzed flavors and aromas.
Mushrooms in a Garden presented a bowl with crispy kale on one side holding beech mushrooms prepared several ways, other pickled accouterments, and a lemon plum gastrique, On the other side a creamy mushroom dashi was soft and sweet from the cream, umami-rich from the dashi, and a MENSA-level complement to the vegetables. This clever creation is the type of dish that wins competitions and my favorite of the night.
A pea and buttermilk foam with capers and red cabbage microgreens had a submerged surprise, our waiter teased. I guessed it was lobster meat, The Moll thought that it was shrimp. It turned out to be an Australian giant prawn, so she won that one.
A seared scallop over a beurre blanc sauce fortified with madagascar vanilla bean then finished with Kuhlúa caviar and micro red cabbage was most impressive for the daunting potency of the beurre blanc sauce. Something to try at home for sure (think of the applications!). The winners keep coming.
Normally, at this point the dishes start to get heavier, building up the main protein of the show. We moved on to meat but the lilliputian helpings prevailed. French pan-seared and butter-based quail was alongside a butter-based potato filled with duck paté. The dish was finished with a fermented kumquat and carrot reduction. The quail was deeply flavorful and even better when soaked in the reduction. I asked for a spoon so as to not waste the world’s supply of kumquat and carrot reduction.
The ‘big’ main course was Australian Venison Loin prepared with a tomato and brandy reduction and beech and maitake mushrooms. The venison, unfortunately, was tough (which may cost chef Black his third star), which was ironic since I asked the waiter why, when deer were beating up vehicles all over the Texas Hill Country, he did not source locally, and he extolled the quality of the Australian product.
Dessert was a housemade orange and chai ice cream resting on pistachio crumble with blueberry and apple cider reduction.
There was enough food for me, although some might prefer more.
All in, Andrew Black is on a high-wire act. This is an attempt to recreate what he saw when he worked at the Ritz in Paris and at other global high-end restaurants. A location about which people will say “If Michelin covered Oklahoma City, this place would get a star”. A culinary ‘sooner’ as it were. The food at our meal (venison excepted) made the cut conceptually and executionally. The service overstepped the waiter’s knowledge when it came to wine (a physical list can fix that) but was otherwise good. Is there sufficient demand in Oklahoma City if a recession descends? He survived COVID (having opened in September 2019) so it might work. I applaud him, he has changed the Oklahoma skyline, but time will tell.
DECLARATION OF INTEREST
All restaurant reviews on this blog are conducted blind and all bills paid for by me unless otherwise noted as a media event. We subscribe to the FTC Endorsement Guides for Bloggers. Readers should not trust any writer who does not do so, or does not declare their interest - they are using you to get free food or payment. In particular, almost all so-called ‘influencers’ are whores.