Finding the bull
Inside Tulsa’s (sort of) secret lounge
Valerie Grant of TulsaFood.com
We cozied into the booth next to each other, not across from each other the way the table was set. It took a minute to rearrange things. When the waitress appeared, I was still sorting forks and stems.
“Welcome to the lounge,” she said, setting two menus in front of us before pitching the fish of the day. “I’ll be back with a wine list, but if you’d like, we also offer a martini cart.”
“Excellent,” I said.
“I’ll send it right over,” she said, and did.
“Vodka or gin?” the cartender asked. There was a bottle of each next to little bowls of olives and lemons. Toulouse-Lautrec would have painted him.
Gin, of course. The lounge house martini balances Martin Miller’s London Dry with a splash of Dolin vermouth. They sang harmony. I slipped the lip of the glass over my own.
“We should do our 25th here,” I said, snapping a tip off a garlic breadstick. She was navigating the wine list by votive.
“Is that soon?” she said, squinting. “No.”
“I’m just saying, if it makes it.”
“Make it? To our 25th!”
“Not us. This.”
The light of a dozen spiny chandeliers was absorbed in a library’s worth of mahogany wood and beveled glass. Bartenders in suspenders moved briskly past servers replenishing serviettes, as if choreographed to the soft drum-and-bass.
Tucked in an alley somewhere inside the IDL, the lounge has no official name, address or signage—just an unassuming copper bull hanging over an anonymous door. A phone number hides in some not-too-distant corner of the Internet, but you have to want to find it. It all reminded me of somewhere, a dining room in another city, or a film, maybe even a book. I can picture Graham Greene’s Maurice Bendrix having his own booth here, plying Sarah Miles.
“Maybe the Atlantic Sea Grill,” I said.
“Yeah, kinda,” she said.
Maybe. Say, if the Atlantic Sea Grill grew a pair.
I never open a menu before a drink. It’s a curse. Once the genie is out of the bottle, the pressure of wishes takes over. But my martini had run dry.
A menu should read like a table of contents, not an index. The lounge’s menu offers three starters, a couple of salads, three entrees, four sides, and not a chicken in sight. First things first.
“Give us a slice of the bacon,” I said. “And the escargots. And the wedge.”
Escargots are funny. These dozen were farm-raised. Found in the wild, they must be purged. “I have done this,” wrote London chef Fergus Henderson, “though it is quite emotional.” He then describes a time in the Hebrides when his party imprisoned several snails, starving them and biding time. “Days seemed to pass watching the poor captive snails leaving trails of snail poo on the sides of the bucket.”
Would you eat snails? Maybe that’s why they float them in what’s called “snail butter.”
The wedge is my dad’s salad from my youth. While I zigzagged from the tang of so-called “Italian” to the sugary “French,” he stuck with Roquefort. I went there, eons later, to the cave in France where big wheels of the stuff grow mold, to impress him. He was more about the dressing. The wedge salad thrives on the creamy, nutty Maytag blue developed at Iowa State University almost 60 years ago. Here, it coats threadbare slices of red onion and halved cherry tomatoes that are more blueberry in size. The chunk of iceberg—a far cry from its torn-leaf, limp-biscuit self—is cold enough to bite back.
The $4 bacon—a meaty strip from the back, not the belly—arrived on a plate scorching to the touch, the salad on one equally frigid. What a touch! The world has become so lukewarm. Only in a morgue should you lay a piece of meat on a cold slab.
“What’s that music?” I asked, raking the bacon through the tomato dipping sauce with a zing of horseradish. Anymore, it’s such a dumb question.
“I’m not sure,” said our host. “It’s Pandora, based on Thievery Corporation.”
He found the band on Shazam, some name we both immediately forgot. He shouldn’t have bothered, but he did.
To eat snails you brace the shell with a tight set of tongs—scalloped on the ends, like forceps—and retrieve the snail with a tiny fork. The tongs are tricky, and I kept spraying snail butter across the tablecloth. Good thing I don’t deliver babies.
“Wow,” she said, chasing a bite of bacon with a sip of Decero Malbec.
I ordered a Bonny Doon Syrah and opened the meatier portion of the night’s program.
If ever I’m wandering in the desert and manna falls from the sky, I hope it’s potatoes Egan. Not a staggering plate of pommes frites, but a half-dozen Russet wedges nestled in a chafing dish.
David Egan, manager of operations at the Cattlemen’s Café in Stockyards City, inspired this dish. Some men get bridges, others office complexes, but Egan’s name is etched in a potato dish for the ages. Crunchy outside, creamy within and born for the butter that baptizes it. Cheese—a generous grating of Grana Padano, less known but older than its Parma cousin, created 900 years ago by Cistercian monks—and a sprinkling of lemon zest completes the rapture.
Creamed spinach: soothing and mineral—another good marriage. I can’t eat steak without it. I could, but I’d feel hollow. Like pouring milk over your granola from one of the cartons with missing persons on it.
The sides, however delicious, must now take a backseat. You can’t put a bull on your menu, hell, over your door—the stocky sort of breed you see chasing the guys in white up the side streets of Pamplona—and not be about steak. Ours was still cooking when I felt the shift: the lounge had become less of a restaurant and more of a bar. They offer two dinner services—an early one that starts at 6 and late-ish one at 8—so at not quite 9:30 this atmospheric change came as a bit of a surprise.
I found myself staring at a piece of art on the far wall, an abstract of metal shapes against a salmon-pink background, a delicate light framed in dark wood. Then I realized I was looking out a window, into the adjacent alley, at a collection of conduit.
“Could I get a glass of the Stepping Stone?” I asked, taking a tasty step up from the Bonny Doon. Out of the corner of my eye, the bull was charging.
There’s a filet on the menu. And, in a throwback worthy of Barry’s wishbone, a market fish choice. That night it was a tower of shellfish on ice, the sort that put Balthazar on the map. I’d never dream of ordering it but respect why it’s there. Restaurant fish being the flown-in sort, it had all but vanished from the local tables of the day. To see it back in full regalia felt like Napoleon riding side-saddle up the Champs Elysees.
Clearly, I’d drunk the Kool-Aid, and the Syrah. I had the bull by the horns. Or it had me by the britches. I’d made up my mind what to eat weeks ago. It was predestined, inevitable.
The Lounge Table Steak is a prime Porterhouse, $43 a person, served in slices a la Peter Luger. The price per person stays the same, but the cut grows thicker as the size of the party increases. (Our steak for two was 1¾-inches thick. One that serves a party of five climbs to 2½ inches.)
The host tipped the dish that corralled it onto a bread plate, at a tilt. “Slice of tenderloin for the lady,” he said, forking a morsel, “slice of strip for the gentleman. And some vitamins.”
He spooned onto our plates a bit of the blood and clarified butter that pooled at the end of the dish.
“Enjoy. I’ll be back in a few bites.”
Enjoy. A rage pumped inside me, a primal urge. If a doe had pranced by I’d have tackled her. The meat was on the rare side of the medium-rare she’d ordered. It melted on the tongue in the sublime way of sashimi. The seasoning was notable in its strength and simplicity: an occasional but satisfying show of salt. The size was colossal. We’d make tacos with most of it come Tuesday. Out of nowhere, the door opened, letting in a reviving blast of cool air. My wife shivered.
“When there’s a big snowstorm in New York,” she said, “do you think the restaurants just don’t open?”
“If the trains run, I guess,” I said. Hell or high water, can they afford not to?
Under a glass, on a coaster, another golden bull, the adoration of Aaron in Exodus. What better way to ride out the shrinking price of oil than on a tidal wave of animal fat? What better emblem to paw and stomp in the face of a downturn?
But they rein it in. In spite of all the bull, the service is discreet. The staff glides around confidently, in control, and nobody said farm-to-table once. I ate a similar menu several years ago at Keen’s, the old Herald Square chophouse. The lounge’s is bolder, and better. It’s not resting on anything, like laurels.
“You finish this,” she said, nudging half a glass of Katherine Goldschmidt cabernet across the crisp, shirt-like tablecloth. I stabbed another piece of beef, my last, and swirled the cab in the glass. Chewed, swallowed. Drank, swallowed.
“You having fun?” we said together. Jinks.
The cake—the only dessert on the menu—needs a tale of the tape: “Weighing in at 3 and quarter pounds and standing 12 inches tall …” It’s got a steak knife stuck in it, as if a toreador had just buried the blade. Six layers of crumb, six of chocolate buttercream, it rises off the plate like the Flatiron Building off Fifth Avenue. We went at it vertically, forking a point off the corner. Half the bar had turned to regard the spectacle. They cheered us on, but we could go no further. My head spinning, I sought comfort in our surroundings. The chatter of other tables, the darkness of lacquered wood. Couples strolled by sporting a mishmash of finery.
We’d eaten cake and that called for a digestif. A meal should cascade, like a mountain freshet into a deep pool. After some confusion we’ll just call Scottish, the server brought a 10-year-old Talisker in a cut-glass tumbler. I sipped and the whiskey settled me. “Come here. This is a very good malt whiskey. Go ahead, it’ll settle your stomach.” Dustin Hoffman doing Dutch Schultz in Billy Bathgate.
“What’s wrong?” my wife asked. I’d gone silent.
“Nothing,” I said, with a twist of a smile.
For more from Mark, read his farewell to Doe's Eat Place on Cherry Street.