Justin Thompson should be relaxed and lazing on his laurels. Less than two years ago, his first restaurant, Juniper, raised the bar on Tulsa dining. And now, with Prhyme, Thompson has reinvented the steakhouse for the 21st century.
He strolls toward the kitchen, scanning the tables in the dining room. It’s not yet 5 p.m., but diners are happily eating, served by attentive waiters dressed in well-tailored dark suits. Thompson gestures toward the leather chairs, the black-stained wood, the earth-toned walls. Scattered about are quirky sculptures and oddly comforting canvases by Cooper Cornelius. The classic steakhouse, Thompson observes, is rough, inelegant, darkly masculine. “I didn’t want to be like that,” he says. “I wanted warm, inviting, comfortable.” And, he says, the service must match. Those dapper, elegant waiters are well-trained and knowledgeable, but their main task is to make each guest feel welcome. After all, he says, “pleasing our guests is why we’re here.”
The kitchen is bright, spotless and very crowded. Moving like a well-oiled machine, disciplined groups of sous-chefs are trimming fat from red, glistening filets. And there are the broilers. They reach 1,600 degrees, which gives a fully browned exterior while leaving the center as rare as you like. But everyone’s eyes are drawn toward those beautiful, well-marbled steaks. They’re grass-fed beef, beef from cows that roam the range and graze in pastures. That yields leaner meat with a rich distinctive flavor – like wild game, Thompson opines – totally unlike its corn-fed cousins.
“We’re different from any steakhouse I’ve ever heard of,” Thompson explains, “because we offer three kinds of beef.” There’s grass-fed beef, USDA Prime 21-day, wet-aged beef and, king of the hill and never before seen in Tulsa, USDA Prime 40-day dry-aged beef. (Sometimes a fourth kind, kobe-style beef, is available.) USDA Prime itself is a rarity; only one out of every 100 steers is good enough to make the grade. Aging improves flavor. Wet-aged meat is wrapped in airtight plastic during aging, allowing enzymes to break down the meat and liberate the flavor. For dry-aging, the meat is simply hung in a cooler; the meat loses water, intensifying its flavor and is broken down by airborne organisms as well as enzymes. The three kinds of beef, says Thompson, are vastly different in flavor and texture. He sees this as a chance for diners to explore and experiment. It’s like a wine tasting; a table of three can each get a different kind, share tastes, explore new flavors, find out what they really like.
But what if you hate steak? Can you still find reason to love Prhyme? Thompson isn’t sure. Still, unlike the traditional steakhouse, which might offer a dry, flavorless slab of fish or chicken to accommodate the lone man out in a party of carnivores, Thompson has designed a bevy of creative entrees featuring produce of the air and sea. There’s blue crab ravioli with truffled sauce Mornay, duck breast with turnip puree and blackberry compote and brown butter scallops garnished with portobello duxelles. If you’re a very rich steak-hater, you can pamper yourself with a lavish spread of Osetra caviar and a $1,500 bottle of first-growth claret. The extensive wine list, designed by sommelier Joe Breaux, also offers 27 much less expensive wines by the glass, as well as more than 200 by the bottle, including, alongside those from famous chateaux, many off-the-beaten-path small boutique wines.
Thompson spends at least half an hour each day training and meeting with the staff. “I love them,” he says, “because they have the same goals and values as I do: making the best product and taking care of guests.” He rushes off to do that now. Nonstop, high-pressure work – how does he do it? “It’s easy,” says Thompson, “because I’m doing what I love. I’m having fun.” 111 N. Main, Suite A, Tulsa. www.prhymetulsa.com