Today an article came out in the Daily Oklahoman written by Steve Lackmeyer about the Hightower building and The Cellar Restaurant. Should there be a Re-Birth of The Cellar Restaurant? Let me know here, and this is the link
I had the pleasure of assisting and eating on a two-day event held at the Paseo Grill on January 17-18. The event was in honor of The Cellar Restaurant, which was an Oklahoma City icon for about 20 years from 1964-1984. It was located in the basement of the Hightower building, which is located on North Hudson Avenue in Downtown Oklahoma City. Preparing the meal for the evening was the original chef, John Bennett. Chef JB, as he likes to be called, is an OKC icon himself. He is Oklahoma’s first celebrity chef and a true legend on the culinary scene in OKC. I have had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with Mr. Bennett over the years. He reached out to me after the overwhelming response to the dinner when he realized he may need some help preparing for the meal. David Cathey did a story in the Daily Oklahoman about the dinner and the calls starting flooding in. The Paseo had enough reservations to fill two nights and still have a list of people for cancellations. I will never pass up the opportunity to work with an icon and helped the kitchen staff get the mise en place ready for the party. The first night there were 105 people confirmed, we were busy getting all the things prepared for the evening. First course was a sampling of the favorites from the lunch menu at The Cellar. These included the chicken salad with grapes and almonds, corned beef sandwich on dark rye with sweet mustard, clam chowder, and shrimp toast, which was a large shrimp with a generous amount of herb butter, baked on top of a sliced French baguette. This was a very nice idea in my opinion. I never would have thought of doing chicken salad, or a sandwich in this type of meal, however, when all were prepared together, it really worked well. The second course was a stuffed Portobello mushroom, with a jumbo lump crab stuffing and topped with greyure cheese and seasoned breadcrumbs. This was very tasty. Next up was a filet mignon, which was rolled in Dijon mustard and cracked black pepper and then grilled. This gave the meat a wonderful flavor, and it was served with a braised endive that literally was so tender and sweet, it melted in your mouth. It was braised with mirepoix and bacon, so the flavor was heavenly. This was accompanied by a hollowed out tomato that was filled with toasted breadcrumbs and celiarac purée. But, the desserts were where it was at. Chef truly saved the best for last here, featuring Mama Bennett’s coconut cake, that was too many layers to count, and about a foot tall, with fresh shredded coconut and cream cheese frosting. Then came the too-rich-to-describe chocolate mousse, fresh berry trifle and the oeufs a la neige (floating islands), which were amazing.
The first of the two nights I spent in the kitchen helping with the mise en place and getting the kitchen ready for service. This is something I am not at all unfamiliar with. I have to say that the crew at The Paseo Grill are absolutely wonderful. I cannot say enough good things about them. My main goal was to make sure that chef didn’t have to work very hard. Getting him to spend time in the dining room, greeting and conversing with guests, and talking about the food, and sharing memories and experiences from The Cellar. By the end of the evening, everyone had a wonderful time, John spoke to everyone about some of his memories and shared about what vision Mr. Hightower had when opening the restaurant.
The second evening I had the opportunity to dine with my wife. We were seated with chef’s sister, aunt, and his friend of 50 years, Robert Dickson. I have to say that, this is generally not the type of thing I get too excited about. Seated at large tables, everyone getting the same thing at the same time, the service is, most of the time, adequate and not personalized. I generally have to pretend to enjoy the food and company, as a lot of chefs and kitchens cannot replicate what they can do for one, on a larger scale. This was not the case on any of the before mentioned accounts. The service was friendly, courteous, and personalized, the food was exceptional, and the company amazing. Sitting with these fine folks exchanging stories from food and wine, travel, life, growing up and growing old, love, and everything between, was inspirational to say the least. So much that, after this I feel compelled to write a book. I want to have a record of food and dining in Oklahoma City. A book that generations to come will be able to read and share containing not only the spirit and energy of the times gone by, but also that has recipes from the iconic restaurants we once enjoyed, but now only share stories about. I hope this will offer an understanding and respect for the next generation of cooks, chefs, and foodies.
Thanks for reading and feel free to comment!