The SOMM Journal

February/March 2015

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80 { THE SOMM JOURNAL } FEBRUARY/MARCH 2015 OKLAHOMA CITY IS ABOUT EQUAL IN DRIVING distance from Los Angeles and New York City, but it couldn't be farther away in culinary distance. You are unlikely to find an Oklahoma restaurant's wine list on anybody's Top 10. Yet Oklahoma City is quietly building a reputation as a destina- tion for wine professionals, thanks to a few ambitious chefs and sommeliers. As recently as a decade ago, Oklahoma City was known only for its casual-dining chains and steakhouses. The com- munity was just beginning to recover from the aftermath of the 1995 Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building bombing attack— its healing process symbolized by the 2000 dedication of a hauntingly beautiful Oklahoma City National Memorial. Then, as occurred in Denver after the construction of Coors Field, a sports franchise helped transform the downtown area. When the Seattle SuperSonics became the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2008, they moved into the Ford Center, a six-year-old arena on the edge of an area called Bricktown. This trendy, retro- style neighborhood was already on the rise, stimulated by the 1998 opening of Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark for the city's Triple-A baseball team. The arrival of the NBA Thunder meant that Oklahoma City had reached the major leagues. The reno- vated and expanded Ford Center was renamed Chesapeake Energy Arena; as in Denver's Lower Downtown, the restau- rants, bars, and nightlife followed, and the city's rejuvenation spread from Bricktown to older adjacent neighborhoods. Oklahoma City's culinary scene has now shifted its focus to downtown and the nearby Uptown and Midtown districts, where tax incentives and a population influx have stimulated gentrification. Three restaurants—Cheever's Cafe, Ludivine and Vast—head the list of food-and-wine destinations. CHEEVER'S CAFÉ Cheever's traces its lineage back to the founding of Oklahoma City in 1889. The first baby born in the new town, named Oklahoma Belle, married Lawrence Cheever and devel- oped a business selling flowers during the Depression. The Cheevers turned the front of their Victorian mansion into an Art Déco–style flower shop, which remained a community landmark until the property was sold to a Louisiana restau- rateur in 1998. After a short term as a Cajun eatery, it was bought by Heather and Keith Paul in 2000. The flower case still stands in the front dining room, now serving as a display for wine bottles and desserts. General Manager Melissa Yohn calls the Pauls' cuisine "Southern comfort food" with a local touch—as exempli- fied by Chef de Cuisine Quinn Carol's "Oklahoma Caprese" salad topped by chicken- fried Chihuahua cheese. The wine list is accessible and affordable; when I visited, it was about to be revised to suit the fall menu. Like all Oklahoma City restaurants, however, Cheever's is confined by one of the nation's most restrictive set of liquor laws. No direct shipments are permitted; all wines must be registered through distributors, who pay the state royalties and taxes. The practical effect is to limit availability to labels that can be sold in sufficient quantities. That means virtually every decent restaurant list (not to mention every retailer) features the same bottlings, so that even an off-the-beaten- path, food-friendly wine such as an Inama Vin Soave Classico or a Chehalem Inox Chardonnay tends to show up every- where alongside the Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignons and Rombauer Chardonnays. "Some distributors carry more obscure wines," says Yohn. "We like to think outside the box." The Pauls, through their Good Egg Dining Group, have now extended that mode of thinking to four more restaurants and three burger joints, all in Oklahoma City. The view from Vast, a restaurant at the top of Oklahoma City's Devon Energy Center tower. In the background is the Oklahoma River. by David Vogels DESPITE CHALLENGES, OKLAHOMA CITY'S GASTRONOMIC REPUTATION IS GROWING Sooner or Later PHOTO: CHOATE HOUSE PHOTO COURTESY OF CHEEVER'S CAFÉ In spite of strict state regulation, wine is an essential part of the experience at Cheever's Café. Melissa Yohn is General Manager at Cheever's Café.

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