The umistakable tssss-tss-tss-tsssss from a high-hat pings off brick facades like audible confetti. I’m lured deeper into the cluster of auburn red buildings that now line Archer Avenue, right along the tippy-top of the Arts District. A breeze of tinkling piano keys swirls around me, drawing me to the lively patio at Duet, the newest restaurant in downtown that feels like New York, but is unmistakably Tulsa.
Duet is a multi-faceted operation—a classy spot for a quick lunch, a swanky place for dinner, and soon-to-be the most swingin’ jazz lounge in town. The jazz lounge plus restaurant concept is yet another brain child of the Kaiser Foundation, which handed creative reign to Tuck and Kate Curren, a couple of the coolest cats and restauranteurs in Tulsa.
Vast floor-to-ceiling windows pull the buzz of the city streets into the dining room, a minimalist space where exposed cement columns and brick give way to chic design elements. A retractable door is flung open, and every stanza from the quartet playing on patio breathes élan vital into the dining room. The sleek feel of the space is tempered by an easy charm the Currens impart to all of their endeavors.
All great maestros need their virtuosos, and the Currens found theirs in Chef Nico Albert. She has been making her mark on restaurants in Tulsa for years, but this was her first opportunity to expand her repertoire.
Albert’s menu for Duet is written like a bright melody that remains tethered to earthy tonality. Dishes are parsed into Soil, Sea, Land and Sky, like an incantation—a summoning of faraway flavors.
The menu runs the gamut of flavor profiles—Viet-Cajun mussels share the menu with beet and sweet potato gnocchi—within a price range that won’t disappoint. Albert’s riff on a classic tostada includes fried oysters, a nod to New Orleans cuisine. Fried chicken gets an Asian treatment, while barbecue ribs are elevated with dark cherries and sumac vinaigrette. The most experimental corners of jazz can feel chaotic and unhinged, but there is a method to the menu’s madness.
"I wanted to have a single vein running through everything—a center line," Albert said. "Jazz is based around a book of standards. Songs that people have been playing for generations all over the world. But improvisation is what keeps jazz exciting, because no one plays that one standard the same. Cooking is very similar. There are standards, like tried-and-true comfort food favorites. So, I’ve taken these traditional dishes that everyone enjoys, and tried to do something that is familiar but exotic at the same time."
The gingersnap-encrusted salmon with forbidden noodles is a frenetic-sounding dish that is actually tightly composed. The gingersnaps—gluten-free and made in house—are ground into a powder-like consistency. It creates a smooth, caramel-colored coating that imparts a delicate crunch with a soupçon of sweetness and spice. The salmon perches upon a nest of inky black noodles with a toothsome texture, dressed in a balanced sesame scallion vinaigrette.
The chilled sweet pea soup was perhaps the most versatile dish of the evening. The broth itself is velvety and verdant, but the pistachio carrot pesto lends a surprise salty richness. Splashy orange swirls of carrot crème fraiche provide a honey-like minerality and creamy depth.
Though all players at Duet are wunderkinds in their own right—from back of house, to front of house, and everything in between—like any jazz ensemble worth its salt, they understand the importance of working from each other’s cues. Beautiful drinks flow from the bar, while dynamic dishes sail out of the kitchen to guests with ease. From start to finish, no one misses a beat.
The jazz lounge is located downstairs, and is set to open Oct. 4, with a performance by acclaimed trumpeter Christian Scott, who plays a genre-defying fusion of styles he calls "stretch music." Badass bar bites and sizzling snacks will be part of the jazz lounge’s offering, along with a full bar with craft cocktails, and an expertly-chosen selection of beers and wines. The Duet restaurant is open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m daily, and serves brunch on Saturdays and Sundays.