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Tulsa’s fresh fish tip the scales

Bodean and White River Fish Market bring coastal fare to landlocked Tulsa

An assortment of food at White River Fish Market

Greg Bollinger

For several years of my childhood my family lived on a small farm in rural Wisconsin. During this time, my father would take my family fishing at the local reservoir where trout, largemouth bass, bluegills, and sunnies could be found in abundant supply—or so I had been led to believe.

Each time I flung my hook into the water, I fantasized about reeling in a majestic, wide-eyed wonder, one large enough to feed my entire family. Sadly, these flights of fancy rarely flourished. While my father and brother had a knack for drawing fish out of the water, I was not so adept. More often than not, I came home from these outings empty handed, and thus began my lifelong routine of eating fish somebody else had caught.

Landlocked states struggle to earn reputations as seafood forerunners, a disappointment for people who enjoy eating and cooking fish but lack the skills or resources to procure it themselves. But fear not, Tulsa: Inveterate seafood joints like Bodean and White River Fish Market also double as fresh-fish markets, so whether you’re looking for something to throw on the grill or simply want someone else to prepare your favorite gilled, clawed, or tentacled fare, Bodean and White River are here to help.

On a recent visit to Bodean (3376 E 51st St.), general manager Kieron St. Ledger surprised us with the claim that—despite having no coastline—Oklahoma’s centrality makes it uniquely poised to receive shipments from the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf of Mexico. As J. (my dining companion) and I surveyed Bodean’s menu and the variety of carry-out fish offered at the market, it became clear that St. Ledger wasn’t exaggerating. Bodean’s twice-daily fish deliveries could make even the smuggest stevedore swoon.

A white-tablecloth establishment with a sterling reputation, Bodean has consistently elevated Tulsa’s seafood prestige for 50 years. The restaurant’s interior is dimly lit and elegant, with walls festooned by colorful tiles, hand-blown glass, and Warhol-esque fish portraiture.

We started the evening with a dozen raw oysters ($31), a mixed plate of Lucky Limes and Savage Blondes (both from P.E.I.) and Beau Soliels (New Brunswick). The shellfish arrived immaculately shucked, with nary a trace of grit and with severed abductors that allowed for easy gulleting. Horseradish, cocktail sauce, and mignonette sauce accompanied the plate, but with oysters this succulent the condiments were used sparingly.

The most unique-tasting of the bunch, the Beau Soliels expressed a well-rounded salinity with a strong oceanic kick, while the Lucky Limes and Savage Blondes offered classic sweetness, intense minerality, and a hearty wash of “liquor”—or the liquid inside the shell—that both readies and cleanses the palate.

Bodean offers dozens of affordable wines by the glass in addition to a lengthy full-bottle list that has been carefully curated to accent the menu. To wash down the bivalves, we went sparkling. The Francois Montand Brut ($8.75) was light with a floral bouquet, while the La Marca Prosecco ($9) had a more assertive flavor profile, tasting strongly of white wine and stone fruit.

For our second course, J. and I split the heirloom tomato salad ($14) and the truffle asparagus salad ($17). Other appetizer offerings worth noting include the New Zealand cockles ($16), escargot ($11), and pan-seared foie gras with strawberry consommé and fennel pollen ($13).

The tomato salad comprised a bowl of nested arugula, fresh burrata (a fist-sized mozzarella ball with a loose and creamy interior), multiple tomato varieties (including fried greens), bacon lardons, and a basil buttermilk dressing that, when combined with the burrata and tomato, elicited memories of a Margherita pizza sans crust. For those who like a little starch with their salad, Bodean’s airy breadbasket is there for swabbing.

The truffle asparagus salad might seem an extravagance at $17, but the aroma of the dish alone justifies the cost. The poached asparagus were beautifully splayed across a wedge of truffled goat cheese, sprinkled with crispy shallots, and served atop a sunny pool of egg yolk and black truffle. The jumbo asparagus gave me pause, as finger-thick stalks run the risk of being reedy. However—like everything else at Bodean—the attention to detail in selecting only the finest product and preparing it with care was evident with every crunchy, fiber-free bite.

Depending on your level of lavishness, Bodean offers a variety of entrees to satisfy your seafood cravings. For those looking for economical options, the cioppino (fisherman’s stew), grilled rainbow trout almondine, and smoked paprika-crusted Norwegian salmon with red king crab risotto all fall under the $30 mark. Served alongside the plank of crimson salmon, the risotto positively radiates sweet crabmeat and the inimitable Parmigiano Reggiano.

Staff recommendations included the pan-seared jump sea scallops ($34) with citrus sweet potato puree, apple celeriac chutney and curry butter, along with the Asian-inspired seared bluefin tuna ($46) with soba noodles, Sriracha mayo, and wasabi powder. While most restaurants pass off dried and dyed horseradish as wasabi, Bodean prides itself on authenticity and uses real wasabi, which is gentler and less nostril-scorching than the ersatz alternative.

For those looking to splurge, the ultimate foray through Chef Jared Chamberlain’s creativity is the Bodean Experience, a customized, multi-course meal featuring seven to nine customized dishes that lasts approximately three hours. Available Monday through Thursday, the Experience costs $115 per person (or $170 with drink pairings), and reservations should be made a week in advance.

In addition to impeccable food, Bodean also offers some of the most professional service in the city. Wait staff are not only warm and attentive, they are also incredibly knowledgeable about ingredients, preparations, and the daily menu changes. And, as a parting gift, every table receives a Bodean coffee cake to enjoy the next day. This should not, however, discourage anyone from ordering dessert or a glass of port, of which there are abundant vintners to choose from. If you’re new to dessert wines, simply ask St. Ledger for a recommendation and he’ll happily oblige and likely regale you with some culinary trivia.

Fifteen minutes upstream from Bodean lies White River Fish Market, which has been serving up fried catfish, broiled filets, and hushpuppies in a casual environment since the early ‘30s. (In response to White River’s sweet and peppery hushpuppies, J.—who was previously ambivalent— proclaimed with wide-eyed revelation, “Now I understand that a hushpuppy is more than a fried lump of dough!”)

Like Bodean, White River harbors a cornucopia of aquatic species that can all be purchased as prepared meals or packaged to-go for home cooking. Entrees—served with two hushpuppies and two sides—feature a bounty of fried, broiled, grilled, or smoked delicacies. Sides include staples like French fries, coleslaw, onion rings and corn on the cob, as well as alternatives like pinto beans and spiced rice.

Because of the summer heat, we opted for broiled versus fried seafood, ordering the seafood combo ($15.95) and the snow crab dinner ($19.95). The combo arrived with three spiced and buttered scallops, three butterflied shrimp, and a tilapia filet, while the snow crab dinner came with two enormous leg clusters with exceptionally meaty joints. The shrimp were grilled and slightly smoky, the scallops soft and unctuous, and the crab so flavorful on its own that the drawn butter must have felt excluded from the party.

While White River offers power players like salmon, tuna, swordfish, and mahi mahi (all under $20), those looking for something off the beaten path will not be disappointed. The market provides enough of an assortment to give new meaning to the phrase “there are other fish in the sea.”

For those preferring delicate, flaky, white fish dinners to comparatively denser fishes, options include orange roughy, red snapper, whole flounder (all $16.95), Alaskan cod ($15.95), perch ($12.95), and even buffalo fish ($10.95), which Andrew Zimmern of “Bizarre Foods” fame has claimed is “the best tasting fish that no one eats.”

The day J. and I visited, White River’s menu also featured walleye and grouper. Walleye is a delicately-flavored freshwater perciform (meaning “perch-like”) with a thin, mild skin that crisps nicely under the broiler and asserts very little oily fishiness. Grouper, another perciform, is a saltwater swimmer related to sea bass that has classic fish-stick flake and a stronger, but not overpowering, flavor.

One of the most consumer-friendly aspects of White River (other than its affordability) is that any fish can be added to your meal á la carte. We were charged less than $3 each for the walleye and grouper filets, which allowed us to expand the horizons of our meal so that we could compare several varieties of fresh and saltwater whitefish without breaking the bank.

Also worth noting is that White River makes their own sweet potato and buttermilk pies ($3.45/slice). And for those on the southeast side of town, a second location in Broken Arrow (1105 E. Kenosha St.) opened last year, providing yet another opportunity to add a little coastal flare to your inland summer.

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