In 1997, a young graduate of America’s finest cooking school served the sort of complex, carefully plated dishes you’d expect in a cutting edge restaurant in New York at a small restaurant located at 51st and Harvard. Tulsa’s top chefs and devoted foodies traveled for miles to sample Matt Kelley’s braised lamb shank and the Asian Style Pork Chop. But there were far too few top chefs and gourmets in those bygone Tulsa days, and Grille 51 closed within a year.
It’s a different city now. Cruise down Cherry Street at noon on any Sunday, past so many fine restaurants you’ll soon lose count, and stop at Lucky’s. From the hostess’ podium you glimpse sleek yet casual gray-walled decor, ornamented with vintage Mexican film posters and other arcana. You won’t get much farther without a wait. Crowds come from all over to try the famous chicken-fried steak served in sumptuous sage gravy. Even in a city devoted to chicken-fried steaks, this one stands out. Amanda Hesser, that prolific New York Times food reporter, was so taken with it that she featured it in her blog. Kelley finally has the recognition he deserves.
“Cooking is fun!” he says, recalling his years in Napa Valley just after culinary school when he worked with legendary chef and restaurateur Cindy Pawlcyn. At the Culinary Institute of America, aging instructors had taught him classic French recipes. But at Cindy’s restaurant, farmers carrying fresh vegetables would bang on the back door. The menu was built upon fresh, local ingredients. And so it is at Lucky’s. Carrots and corn fresh from Bixby, beef raised in Oklahoma, even the pecan wood burned in the grill is local.
Matt and his wife Brooke – “She’s my partner in life and also my partner in the kitchen,” says Kelley – have designed the menu to showcase the things they love best. At lunch, there’s something for everybody, with many dishes, such as the fish tacos, showing the Southwest influences Kelley adores. At dinner, you’ll find sophisticated culinary triumphs such as Trimbach Riesling Chicken, where the fruity, floral bouquet of the wine – with a hint of lemongrass thrown in – contrasts with the earthy taste of enoki mushrooms and the rich, heady flavor of meat and stock. Sea bass is paired with a classic French bechamel.
And the highlight of Grille 51, the Asian Style Pork Chop, is still on the menu.
“My friends won’t let me take it off,” says Kelley.
There’s also an impressive wine list, and even if you’re a teetotaler, the pithy yet evocative descriptions of each vintage are worth a gander. It focuses on small, family-owned California vineyards whose vintners share a love and passion for excellence – exactly the qualities most in evidence when you visit Lucky’s.