For the past three decades, diners who value elegance exemplified in cuisine, decor and service have found their way to a little wooden door at the northeast end of Utica Square. Behind that door, they find walls paneled in muted hues; crisp, white tablecloths and a warm yet superbly professional welcome. “A Mecca for food-and-drink mavens,” the elite James Beard Foundation called it. “A culinary haven of contemporary cooking.”
On that occasion, chef and owner Robert Merrifield prepared a banquet for the James Beard Society, assisted by culinary luminaries – including Jose Andres, Josiah Citrin and Roberto Donna – who had flown in from New York and Los Angeles. This was neither the first nor the last of the many awards and honors showered upon this chef, a man who has devoted his entire life – since his first job when, barely in his teens, he washed dishes at a country club – to his profession. A stint at America’s top culinary school, the Culinary Institute of America, followed, and then work, as a chef at some of Los Angeles’ finest restaurants, including Chasen’s and Valentino’s.
In 1981, while working as general manager at Southern Hills, he was offered a job at a new Tulsa restaurant run by a successful chef and caterer. He accepted the job and has run the Polo Grill for more than three decades.
Go there today and things have changed, but not too much. The door is glass now, and it leads to a corridor opening onto five private dining rooms with gleaming blond wood walls and tall vitrines stacked with wine bottles. Some are set up for banquets, with a rainbow of fresh flowers set in crystal vases. In the other direction, you’ll find the dining room. It’s been redecorated, but it looks a lot like it always has. Many of the customers have been dining there for decades, and they’re not comfortable with change. A cozy, wood-trimmed bar area yields to an intimate dining space. Merrifield wanted to capture the comforting feel of a neighborhood restaurant, Michael Funk explains, and combine that with “fantastic service and a kitchen that can stand up to any in the state.”
Funk is the general manager, and, elegant-yet-efficient in starched white shirt and tie, he looks the part. Justin Donaldson, Polo Grill’s talented new chef, spent years cooking in New York’s finest restaurants, first at Cafe Gray alongside virtuoso chef Gray Kunz, and then at Gilt, which New York magazine described as “unabashedly expensive, almost painfully sleek,” where Donaldson worked with British wünderkind Paul Liebrandt, world-famous for cutting-edge creativity.
Donaldson strolls over. Lanky, intent, he’s a man lucky enough to be immersed in work he loves. Does he love working in Oklahoma? “The produce here is amazing,” he exults. “I want to let these ingredients speak for themselves and build my dishes around their flavors.”
Donaldson showcases his own creativity in nightly entree specials and innovative monthly wine dinners. The regular menu, though, seeks to strike a balance between avant-garde and tradition while still maintaining quality. Taking a menu from one of the dark-suited waiters, Funk points to a strip steak on the menu. “Midwest raised, USDA Prime, aged 28 days,” says Funk, who went to Kansas City to tour the facility to make sure it met his exacting standards.
Some of Tulsa’s finest chefs got their start at Polo Grill: Justin Thompson, Grant Vespasian (who worked there after cooking at Palace Cafe), Michelle Donaldson, Paul Caplinger, Paul Wilson. Then they went on to found restaurants of their own. How can Polo Grill stand out from the pack?
“I’ve learned a lot from the New York chefs,” says Donaldson, “and I’ve made it my own. I’ll use what I learned to produce the sort of dishes you’d expect to find only in New York or California: something new, something different, something unique.”
“We want to retain our identity, who we are,” adds Funk, “and still strive and move forward.” 2038 Utica Square, Tulsa. www.pologrill.com