I have a rather large and ever-evolving bucket-list of restaurants I have vowed to visit before the good Lord decides I'm done here on planet earth. The majority of those restaurants, maddeningly, are not within arm's reach of me (or even a day's drive). It's true, I travel a lot for work, but my road trips rarely put me close to the culinary hot-spots I long for. Fingers are pointing at you East Coast, West Coast and the Deep South ...
Let me break in here momentarily and share the news (if you haven't heard already) from Andrew Knowlton over at Bon Appétit that San Francisco is currently the hottest food city in the country right now - a mere 840 miles from my front door.
Living nowhere near culinary hot spots (sorry, Phoenix, but you've got to do better) is hard on a food addict, but it also makes me appreciate the time and effort that goes into building a successful location like the ones that grace Andrew's annual list, or any successful restaurant for that matter.
And it makes me search long and hard for culinary bright spots in seemingly barren parts of the country. My recent road trip took me east from Arizona along Route 66 toward Hot Springs, Arkansas. Google map it and you'll discover quickly that route is not brimming with hot, new locations. That's not to say you can't find good food along the way. If you do your research and ask around, you'll find some hidden gems.
I travel through OKC often and I've been waiting a long time for the food scene there to heat up. So much about Oklahoma is ripe for the picking (farm and field) and I'm beginning to see some genius cooks and chefs elbowing their way through the thick throngs of Golden Corrals and Cheddars chains the Midwest is commonly known for.
Guernsey Park in Oklahoma City is (almost literally) a hidden gem making their move, combining complex techniques with classical Asian and American dishes in the heart of the historical and arts district. Tucked away behind a row of shops on an unassuming street, the atmosphere at GP is energetic and modern, momentarily making me forget I was in the country's heartland.
The food at Guernsey Park is not only delicious, it is eye candy at its best. This is "tweezer food" amped up on Red Bull. Plating has always been a major part of the enjoyment I receive when I dine out, and GP in does not disappoint. Viewing their food gallery online I made a plan of attack but reminded myself to stay open to server suggestions and additions to the menu.
I'm often visiting a location just one time which makes it difficult to a) assess a place properly and b) try more than one thing. And I'm often traveling alone so I can't share plates. I'm officially going on record to let you know that the days of ordering one entree and hoping it is the best thing on the menu are over. I'm ordering multiple dishes and I may or may not eat them all.
I found Guernsey Park's menu to be heavily influenced by Vietnamese cuisine (no complaints, just an observation), but there are smatterings of Japanese and Korean concepts as well. A more surprising aspect of the menu, though, was the cost. I was there for lunch, sure, but I went all out and ordered off the dinner menu. Most of the appetizers and shareable plates were under $10.00 each and their most expensive menu item (The Korean Cowboy - a ribe eye steak) weighed in at just under $30.00. Really good food at insanely reasonable prices would easily make this aa spot I would hit up weekly. I'm sure that's exactly what the folks at GP are shooting for.
I'm a sucker for "the recommended dish" and GP's menu handily points those out to you, but it's always a good idea to dig deeper. I started off with some signature sushi, the Guernsey Park Roll, but I informed my server I'd be going for a few "under-the-radar" items as well. I think I may have spotted a gleam in his eye as he moved off to put in my first order.
The Guernsey Park Roll - crab and cucumber roll topped with yellowtail and tuna, dressed with togarashi sauce, cilantro, togarashi aoli, scallions, preserved lemon and wasabe-marinated tobiko.
The flying fish roe marinated in wasabe was not only beautiful to look at, it provided a hit of gentle heat to the roll, and the preserved lemon cut through the umami-rich togarashi aoli and avocado mousse (not in the menu description) perfectly.
I'll admit, I ate the entire roll - sushi doesn't travel well and the wasabi-roe was too addictive to leave alone. I might have licked the dish when no one was looking. The next two dishes were for nibbling only before they were boxed up and put in the cooler to be enjoyed for dinner that evening when I rolled into Hot Springs.
Next up was the Scotch Egg and Fried Rice.
Scotch Egg Fried Rice - fried soft-boiled egg wrapped in Vietnamese pork sausage and panko crust served on a bed of bacon-sauerkraut fried rice.
I'll try a scotch egg anywhere for any reason, so there was no arm-twisting when I saw it on the menu. I would not have been surprised if they'd used kimchi in the rice but welcomed the vinegary sauerkraut and smokey bacon - a nod to the location's Midwestern roots.
I suppose the next dish I sampled should have been something without an egg, but I absolutely adore eggs and how could I turn down the Vietnamese influenced Thit Ko Tau?
Thit Kho Tau - Vietnamese braised pork served with rice white, house pickles and perfect fried egg, garnished with Thai chile, green onion, cilantro and soy caramel
Traditionally a dish of marinated pork and boiled eggs braised in a light sauce, GP's twist on the dish presented the braised pork almost as a pâté, cutting through the rich "umaminess" of the pork and runny egg with a bright pickle of carrots, daikon and bean sprouts.
I rarely indulge in dessert at lunch, but after discovering I might not make it through again anytime soon, my server insisted I sample their carrot cake ...
Carrot Cake - served with a cream cheese ice-cream, ginger tulle, candied orange, candied pecans and rum caramel
If you like cake, more often that not you either enjoy the cake more or the frosting more. I love the cake, my sister loves the frosting - it works out well for us. It's a good thing she wasn't there because there was no way in hail I was giving up any of that cream cheese ice-cream that topped the moist cake. Bursting with multiple textures (individual slices of cake are crisped up on the grill before service) this is a not-to-miss treat.
I had to come back through OKC on my way home, of course, and drooled apprehensively when my server recommended a seafood + oyster bar (The Drake) that was opening that month just down the street from GP. (whaaaa? Seattle meets downtown OKC?) It wasn't meant to be, however. They opened the day after I passed through.
Next time, OKC ... next time.