Having grown up in Oklahoma, I can confirm the classic one-liner: The reason Texas doesn’t fall off into the Gulf of Mexico is because Oklahoma sucks. It’s home to some of America’s lowest-paid teachers and coincidentally has the highest prison incarceration rate in the union. It’s the breeding ground of politicians like climate change denier Scott Pruitt, whose platform against same-sex marriage and the Affordable Care Act is a road map to winning elections in the state. Its origins are completely depressing, and unless there’s a football game, there aren’t a lot of options on Saturday nights.
Throughout my 20-year Dallas residency that began by going to the first out-of-state school that accepted me, my family has tried to convince me that Oklahoma City is really coming up, that Bricktown’s Riverwalk is just as nice as any place in Dallas. But I judge a city by its food and, after once going to what was ranked as the city’s best sushi restaurant, which offered far too much imitation crab mix, it’s hard not to feel sorry for the place after being immersed in the glitz of Dallas restaurants. A culinary visit to OKC is best arranged around Del Rancho’s chicken-fried steak sandwiches or Tucker’s Oklahoma onion burgers with a history going back to the Depression. But never has Oklahoma City been considered a fine dining destination — until now.
A small, 22-seat restaurant primarily run by two Okie chefs in their 20s revolutionized the city’s food scene when Bon Appetit’s September edition named Nonesuch as the best new restaurant of 2018. Considered the authority publication on the nation’s best kitchens, BA editors typically choose eateries from cities like Portland or San Francisco for their annual Hot Ten list. But Andrew Knowlton, a guy whose job is to travel around the U.S. scoping out the most creative new restaurants, decided to book a flight to OKC after seeing some “beautiful and artistic and progressive” food pics on Instagram. The food looked like “the kind of dishes you might find in Copenhagen or Tokyo or New York — but not necessarily the Great Plains,” he writes.
When Knowlton initially visited, he reported most of the seats at Nonesuch’s U-shaped chef’s counter as empty. When his Hot Ten article went to press, their Instagram account had 5,000 followers. He openly worries about the future of the restaurant at the end of the article. But today, Nonesuch’s Instagram account has jumped to more than 15,000 followers. Prepaid reservations that open once every few months sell out in about 24 hours. People from New York and Chicago are booking flights to Will Rogers World Airport to experience Oklahoma terroir as chefs Colin Stringer and Jeremy Wolfe interpret it.
Stringer, who manages the kitchen, began his culinary training as a grill cook and dishwasher at Waffle House. Somewhere between scattering, smothering and covering hash browns, and running a successful but short-lived pop-up called Nani, he became an expert on aging meats and working with vinegar. Wolfe, the bread and pastry chef who created a cow’s colostrum custard that Knowlton deemed as “the silkiest, most perfect” he’d ever eaten, also began his career as a dishwasher before joining Stringer at Nani.
After Nani closed because of pressure from the health department, local restaurateur Todd Woodruff said he wanted to give the team a “new stage to keep doing what they love but also make a living doing it.” With Woodruff’s investment and the temporary help of chef Paul Wang, who had previously interned at Copenhagen’s prestigious Noma — named four times as the world’s No. 1 restaurant by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants — Nonesuch opened on Oct. 4, 2017.
The 10-course tasting menu that’s inspired by “modern Nordic cooking” similar to Noma is ambitious cooking for any city, Knowlton asserts. Diners can expect minimally plated, hyper-local and foraged ingredients that are heavy on vinegar and pickling. Because “farm-to-table” is an overwrought term that’s seldom actually executed, I asked Wolfe about sourcing after my dinner. He said they do order paper towels and kitchen basics from a restaurant warehouse, but every protein, vegetable, fruit and dairy product comes from the country surrounding OKC. This feat is not something they tout; to them, local ingredients should be the norm today, and it’s also what keeps them creative.
Local ingredients also mean the menu constantly changes. Highlights for Knowlton were a thickly cut, dry aged steak tartare and that custard made from a cow’s first milk after giving birth, covered in double-shucked English peas, strawberry vinegar and coriander flowers. I enjoyed my first Oklahoman amuse-bouche: warm mushroom broth with beet, persimmon and herb oil. It tasted like delicious medicine. Later came a potato cooked in pork fat, topped with a slow-cooked egg yolk sauce and hackleback caviar. Who knew Oklahoma was a source of caviar?
I was floored by wines like Thirst from South Africa, an unfiltered natural wine made only from the cinsault grape — not a rose and not a red, but cloudy and intense like Oklahoma tornado season. That was paired with a butternut squash, ginger and Thai chili sherbet with yogurt. The main course featured a grilled bison rib-eye with watercress sauce and a pour of Bell Syrah, the only wine I’ve ever bought online after tasting it out. And I really couldn’t decide my favorite between Wolfe’s two dessert courses: nasturtium ice cream with squash caramel and biscotti or the jasmine ice cream topped with milk powder crumble and apple curd, poured with two Zaragozan vermouths.
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The next day, when I showed my family pictures of the plates and told them how much it cost, they laughed at me, especially after we confessed that my husband ate an onion burger after dinner. Not all Oklahomans may yet be ready for a place like Nonesuch; many will not have the budget for it or see the sense of it when you can get a chicken-fried steak with two sides and toast at Del Rancho for $11. But what Stringer and Wolfe are doing is different — they are creating art, combining honest ingredients to produce a dinner worthy of foodie elites. Nonesuch has rekindled my state pride because they’ve shown us that if you keep your head down and keep following your passion, someone might just notice it and call it genius.
And former Oklahomans like myself aren't the only Dallasites falling in love with Nonesuch: Dallas chefs like Josh Sutcliff and Junior Borges have posted glowing social media reviews and gorgeous photos from Nonesuch meals in the last few months. In October, Bullion chef Oliver Sitrin posted excitedly on Facebook about his December reservation at the restaurant.
Nonesuch’s next reservation window for January through March will go on sale at 8 a.m. Dec. 1. The tasting menu plus recommended standard wine pairings is $150 per person, including tax and service.
Nonesuch, 803 N Hudson Ave., Oklahoma City, Okla.