“I want to come here again, Mommy!” yells a tiny diner at one of the birchwood tables. The parents smile indulgently, not only because their little girl is adorable, but because the food they’ve just eaten has brought back a glimmer of the wide-eyed excitement of childhood.
“I ate here last week and I’ve reserved for next week,” says a man in a natty bespoke blazer whose hobby is jetting off to New York and Europe to dine at Michelin-starred restaurants.
“What he does is an art, and how he does it I don’t know, but it’s amazing,” says Jacqui Kelly, the customer’s server, who, coming straight from a gig at a trendy Orange County restaurant, should be jaded but is energized.
The he is Matt Amberg, chef and owner of Oren and, incidentally, the man who spent countless hours sawing and polishing planks to make those tables. His wife, Yaara, also a chef, has, too. The farm-driven Brooklyn eatery where Matt worked was so popular that a magazine put him on its list of most influential foodies. But Amberg realized that a lifetime of work would never get him enough cash to open a restaurant in New York. So he came home to Tulsa.
Most modern chefs will tell you their job is to take the best ingredients and let them shine. That’s what Amberg does at Oren, but he has all sorts of secret tricks to concentrate and amplify the flavors, and maybe tweak them in a way that’s sort of like the food you know, but much better.
“When I was a kid,” he says, “I hated broccoli. It was just bland and mushy. But put in a bit of salt [and] roast it – it’s transformative. I do a few more tricks; I play with the texture, the temperature, surround it with a broccoli puree enlivened with a dash of lemon zest and a bit of spinach, stud it with walnuts, and it’s ready for the menu.”
Many more menu items are still in development. Love of food is a job requirement at Oren, and Amberg expects his line cooks to come to him with ideas for dishes that he will help them develop.
“I’m working on a cauliflower dish that will have three or four techniques on the same plate: roasted, pureed, raw and maybe there’ll even be cauliflower couscous,” says Amberg, who, when he talks of what he loves, looks like a happy Vincent Van Gogh. “I like taking humble things and turning them into sophisticated, elegant dishes.”
He has a special passion for vegetables, and the first half of the menu is devoted to them. Each of these reasonably priced ($8) plates showcases a fine, locally grown vegetable, and there are always surprises. A refreshing heirloom tomato salad is enhanced by raspberries, ground peanuts, pistachios and Vietnamese nuoc mam.
Then come the meat dishes, which are more straightforward yet spectacular. Bursting with flavor, chicken from 413 Farm in Adair finds a counterpoint in a sauce whose strange, haunting flavor comes from one ingredient: asparagus. Slices of pork tenderloin are artfully arranged on a bright red pomegranate-celery sauce that explodes across the plate as if flung by an abstract expressionist painter.
Exuberant and smiling, Yaara Amberg bounds into the room, and a small redheaded boy rushes ahead of her to join his dad. Matt Amberg smiles, too, because everything he loves is in reach, and, with the white walls of the dining room behind him, it looks like he’s in heaven.
Oren is at 3509 S. Peoria Ave. in Tulsa.