When chefs Jonathon Stranger and Russ Johnson opened their farm-to-fork concept Ludivine, 805 N Hudson Ave., the question was whether Oklahoma City was ready to support it.
Two years later, the answer appears to be an unequivocal yes.
Ludivine got off to an auspicious debut, serving celebrity chefs Emeril Lagasse and Rick Bayless within its first few months to rave reviews. The initial launch was a resounding success.
But then came drought, which is bad enough in general, but nearly devastating to a small restaurant that relies on local ingredients. But the young chefs powered through on local bison, pork and lamb, plus whatever produce they could get their hands on.
This spring proved bountiful, allowing the guys to showcase Oklahoma flavor with a little more variety. But, by summer's end drought reared its calamitous kisser once again.
Welcome to life as an Oklahoma farmer.
Rather than wondering what life would be like “if it rains,” Ludivine was busy gaining national notice from “Food and Wine” magazine, drawing a post at the Outstanding in the Field event this fall and hosting a VIP after-party for touring celebrity chef/author/television host Anthony Bourdain.
Not bad for a two-year-old restaurant with more self-inflicted obstacles than the average restaurant will accrue in 10 years. Little has changed in those two years. The concept of a constantly revolving menu based on available local ingredients continues. The bar, still among the coolest in the city, is now open Mondays upon which they offer a Blue Plate Special for $10, with $1 of that going to the Oklahoma Farm and Food Alliance. They also offer “Drinking School” twice a month, in which they teach a little mixology. In the restaurant, you'll now find original works of art from former NBA and Oklahoma State University star Desmond Mason adorning the walls.
Challenges met and mastered are the mortar that binds Ludivine to excellence. But the challenge of sourcing local ingredients, prepping them daily, rotating the menu weekly to reflect market freshness and efficiently using those ingredients was the part they expected to be difficult. Perhaps the most difficult challenge is not only to educate customers but be educated by them.
“We've learned it's about making people happy,” Stranger said. “All we want is for people to come so we can cook for them.”
Stranger and Johnson are fanatical in their love of food. They love to plant it, forage for it, smell it, touch it, talk about it and prepare it in new, inventive ways. They are insulated by people who feel the same way about food, which did make for some challenges in feeding the general public.
“We don't have grilled chicken breast,” Stranger said. “There's plenty of places to find that.”
Stranger and Johnson also know where there's room for a grilled chicken breast, there's room for rabbit, lamb or bison. And while they might not offer that oversized, hormone-marinated chicken breast, they currently have braised local chicken with homemade linguine. And while neither of them is uncouth enough to guarantee it's a better dish, I will happily do it for them.
On my most recent visit, Johnson made seared Montauk tuna that was among the best seafood I've ever tasted, proving the 1-percent of food they do that isn't sourced locally is just as good as the other 99 percent of the menu. The slow-roasted local lamb shoulder was sublime.
Meanwhile, Ludivine has made roasted bone marrow and the bone marrow luge a part of the local conversation, which by itself is worthy of praise. They serve charcuterie daily and celebrate bison as often as possible. Heritage pigs from Walnut Creek Farms often get top billing on the menu. Local lamb is as common to Ludivine as Kramer was to “Seinfeld.”
Meanwhile, Ludivine has not only tested the boundaries of local dining, it's become an advocate for progressive local culture, hosting events for Oklahoma City Ballet and carrying the torch for H&8th nights in MidTown.
More than anything, Johnson, Stranger and the crew have invested more sweat equity in Ludivine that can be measured. The time they spend prepping daily constantly dilutes their own hourly wages.
Guests at Ludivine are surely in line for a memorable dinner, but they might not realize they are contributing to a movement toward a sustainable way of life aimed at securing our local culture. A visit to Ludivine is a visit to a living art gallery in which the only inedible works are those hanging on the walls.
Ludivine is open 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. The bar is open 5 p.m. to midnight Monday through Thursday, and 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. For reservations, call 778-6800.