Tallgrass Prairie Table finds fans of its farm-to-fork movement.
The opening of Tallgrass Prairie Table this past winter was perhaps the most-lauded restaurant opening ever in Tulsa.
The buzz surrounding the new nose-to-tail endeavor, launched by three of Tulsa’s restaurant veterans — Hope Egan, Michelle Donaldson and Johnna Hayes — was the talk of social media for weeks leading up to the opening … and it hasn’t died down since.
“I never anticipated we were going to be so busy,” Donaldson says. “Now people understand how important it is and want to be a part of it.”
Tallgrass Prairie Table’s culinary fate was sealed in 2011, at Blank Canvas (Youth Services of Tulsa’s annual cooking competition/fundraiser). Donaldson, then cooking at Polo Grill, was served the “Best Chef” award of the evening.
Egan was in attendance, and decided then and there that Donaldson would be the chef for the new farm-to-fork concept she was planning downtown.
Fast forward three years. Donaldson, now the executive chef at Tallgrass Prairie Table, won the competition again this year, beating out seven of Tulsa’s best chefs with her lamb dish.
To the amazement of those in attendance, Donaldson broke down the whole lamb on her prep table. When asked about the experience, she says, “Oh, my gosh ... it was awesome. It has become the event to strive to win. It is great for Tulsa and great for us as chefs. I am elated and humbled.”
Egan, also a veteran in the Tulsa restaurant scene (she ran Hope’s Table catering company and was the general manager at Ciao! until July 2012 when she left to work full time on Tallgrass), started planning the restaurant many years ago, but finally got down to ripping out walls in the former Blue Dome Diner this past fall.
The space has three dining areas: the front room showcases the open kitchen, a middle space contains most of the seating, including a large bar and communal table, and the room in the back can be closed off for private events.
The interior pairs industrial farm décor — enormous reclaimed sliding warehouse doors, concrete floors and much of the space’s original wood and exposed brick — with a girly touch. Crystal chandeliers, designed by local artist Bob Cabe, hang throughout the dining room. I covet the sepia-toned horse photographs on the back wall.
Egan and Donaldson collaborated on the menu — which includes some Hope’s Table recipes — but much of it has Donaldson’s touch.
“I like the ingredients to shine,” Donaldson says. “I keep it simple and colorful.”
Her inspiration is varied and comes from years training under chefs in Las Vegas and Tulsa (Smoke. and Polo Grill were her two previous kitchens). For example, Egan insisted on a version of shrimp and grits, but the chef in Donaldson wondered, “How can I do ‘shrimp and grits’ without doing ‘shrimp and grits’?”
Tallgrass’ version is different than most — coarse-ground grits and house-made tasso ham are rolled up into a roulade and served with a maple-bourbon gastrique ($8).
“The menu is me,” Donaldson says. “I may do things a bit outside the box, but everything is approachable.”
She adds, “Oklahoma has an abundance of amazing produce and quite a selection of cows, pigs and other products. Our goal is to eventually become 80 percent local.”
The restaurant is well on its way. Donaldson handpicked the vegetable seeds to be grown on The Living Kitchen Farm and Dairy in Depew, Okla. (the farm also raises chickens owned collectively by the farm and Tallgrass to produce the restaurant’s farm eggs). The pork hails from Brook Hill Farm near Pryor. The chicken is from DARP in Tahlequah.
“The Berkshire pigs, a heritage breed dating back hundreds of years, are raised only for me,” Donaldson says.
Before Tallgrass opened, she spent three months working with ranchers and farmers to source the animals.
“We are trying to embrace ‘nose-to-tail’ to its fullest,” Donaldson insists. “We want to live up to the movement’s name.”
Lambs come in whole while beef products come in as primal cuts (large pieces of meat initially separated from the carcass during butchering, from which steaks and other subdivisions are cut) from The Rural Small Holders Association, a collection of Oklahoma ranches that satisfies Tallgrass’ demands for locally raised meat.
“I am even working with a girl to cultivate mushrooms for us,” Donaldson adds.
I visited Tallgrass on a few occasions this winter. Before I stepped foot in the door, I knew dinner was going to be meat-heavy, so we ran with it. The menu features a well-edited collection — only 14 items, plus a trio of daily specials: animal of the day tacos ($9), the Daily Cut and Market Fish (both market price).
Of the quad of featured starters, I highly suggest the roasted bone marrow with porter onion jam and bourbon mustard ($15, with an optional whisky shot for $3 to luge down the bone) and tender kale salad, with preserved lemon and anchovy vinaigrette and crispy chicken skin ($8).
For entrees, don’t miss cider-braised pork belly and scallops ($28), the grilled bone-in pork chop ($24) or the Daily Cut — on both visits, a 16-ounce rib eye (melt-in-your-mouth tender and cooked to my perfect shade of medium rare). As with the daily specials, side dishes and accoutrements for most entrees change with seasonality and availability.
The restaurant began serving Sunday brunch (10:30 a.m.-2 p.m.) after my deadline, but I am thankful for the excuse to venture back and test this menu.
Egan has tapped Hayes (who bartended at Stonehorse Café as well as Sonoma Bistro) as the Tallgrass bar manager.
Donaldson and Hayes worked together to create a bar menu featuring craft cocktails, a boutique wine list and beer selection with many local offerings, including Oklahoma craft beers from Prairie Ales, Marshall and COOP, and wines from Cochon (Rhone varietals made by some Oklahoma City ex-pats). Tallgrass will host its first wine dinner with Adam Webb of Cochon on May 22.
Egan says they also are considering expanding the kitchen to add a butchery room, so they can fully execute their charcuterie and snout-to-tail vision. Donaldson also plans to add a nose-to-tail tasting menu to the offerings.
“It is for more adventurous eaters, since it will feature often avoided parts such as tongue and ears,” she says.
In addition, the restaurant’s back room can be rented for private dinners, including a whole-animal feast for up to 14 people — Donaldson will cook a whole pig or lamb on the spit, parade it through the dining room and serve it up family style.
“It is simple food, but oh, so different from what everyone else is doing,” Donaldson says.
The farm-to-fork movement, also known as the farm-to-table movement, refers to the stages of food production and is focused on local consumers eating locally produced food.
The nose-to-tail method of cooking incorporates parts of an animal not traditionally prepared for meals, often by whole-roasting the animal.
Tallgrass Prairie Table
313 E. Second St., 918-933-4499, www.tallgrasstable.com
Hours — 5-10 p.m., Tuesday-Wednesday; 5-11 p.m.,Thursday-Saturday; 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-9 p.m., Sunday