Chef Joseph Royer has built his culinary reputation among the masses with the fast-casual Saturn Grill concept, but in the chefs' community, Royer is known as one of the city's top talents.
So, it's no surprise that with his third Saturn Grill concept, Royer put his shoulder into evolving the concept.
“I wanted to take the knowledge of the eight years that got us to the point where we could open a third location and bring to it some things we hadn't tried before.”
The new spot, on the south side of what for many years was a furniture store, is at 1012 N Walker. It boasts a beautiful view of downtown Oklahoma City and promises to become a Midtown destination for dinner and drinks.
Servers come to the table equipped with iPads linked to the kitchen. Tabs are run from the same tablet.
When you walk in the door of the new Saturn Grill, there's no doubt about where you are. The signature bright colors and Jetsonian angles and touches are present, but Royer said a walk around Midtown inspired him to do his best to maintain some of the midcentury modern retro feel of the neighborhood. His solution was to keep a lot of the original brick and marry it to the signature flourishes the concept is known for. To maintain the feel of the digital menu boards of the fast-casual installations that preceded it, the new Saturn Grill features menus on transparent plastic, and the tables, which Royer built, combine orange plastic and air-filled packaging material.
Royer also did the tile work, some painting and a lot of finishing work.
“I'm a detail guy,” he said.
As much as Royer loves to get his hands dirty, his most profound talent is in the kitchen. To set off the new restaurant, he added appetizer and entree segments to the menu to go along with a full bar that includes craft cocktails.
Royer, who dreamed of a career in architecture and has the artistic acumen to prove it, can now offer guests the full range of his skills first developed in The Coach House Apprenticeship Program before moving to The Metro Bistro and Wine Bar.
While the menu offers a lot of new stuff, it also includes all the sandwiches, pizzas and salads the concept is known for. It also adds small plate offerings and a half-dozen fully composed entrees.
“The menu is a reflection of how I eat,” Royer said. “I like options, I eat a lot of vegetarian meals — I only eat meat once a day. So, we've got plenty of meat on the menu, but we also have 22 vegetarian and/or vegan items on the menu.
The new dishes include a fried polenta appetizer that really could be the next big thing. I'll be shocked if you don't start seeing homages to it pop up on menus around the city. The fried polenta wedges are streaked with balsamic caramel and strewn with halved cherry tomatoes, basil, thin-sliced onion and crumbled goat's cheese. Wow.
The small plates also include dynamite falafel and hummus with roasted red pepper sauce, green-lip mussels, vegan meatballs worthy of the fiercest carnivore and queso con carne.
The entrees are highlighted by pork loin medallions with orange-chipotle glaze served over fried polenta, plus cranberry-apple compote. Awesomeness.
“That dish started out as a special that was thrown together at the last minute at the original location,” Royer said. “I sent the first one out without even tasting it, the server comes back and says, ‘What was in that thing? The people can't stop talking about it.' So we made one up, and we understood. Usually, we really work through a long process, but every now and then you get lucky on the first try.”
There's also a nice beef shoulder cooked sous vide style before a quick sear and served over fresh spinach and garlic mashed potatoes. I wrote about the Cioppino back in January in honor of the San Francisco 49ers appearance in the Super Bowl. The seafood stew is not only delicious but a ridiculous value at $12.99. The entrees also include chicken Parmesan and lasagna.
“What Saturn Grill really offers is elevated comfort food with a twist,” Royer said.
A new challenge
Just added to the concept last week is the cocktail menu, which Royer admits he knew little about when he embarked on creating a bar program.
“I thought to myself, if we're going to offer table service, let's try doing a full bar,” he said. “I was scared because we'd done wine and beer for years and years, but I didn't have a lot of experience making cocktails.”
He said he approached the task with great trepidation, deciding to approach the challenge as a chef would: He started testing ingredients.
“Premium Brands brought me a lot of stuff to try. And I started opening these bottles of small-batch, organic liqueurs, and when I smelled them I was like, ‘This is just like making food; it's the same process,'” he said.
He said it was ultimately a matter of tasting in increments until he had a good grasp of the flavors and pairing them with ingredients from the kitchen.
“We make a saffron syrup for one drink,” he said. “You'll find drinks with green tea, ginger vinegars. The Lumberjack has maple vinegar, maple syrup, sparkling apple juice and Canadian whiskey with a salted rim.”
The result is craft cocktails that not only stand alone but pair beautifully with food. You'll find plenty to drink that's been infused with herbs and based on fresh-squeezed juices as well as standard well drinks on the expansive drink menu. The Lumberjack, in particular, is the closest a cocktail has ever come to Willy Wonka's Everlasting Gobstopper and its palate-pleasing shifts in flavor.
Royer loves to cross-utilize his ingredients, so the house-made ginger ale recipe he developed works not only in high balls but also as a premium unleaded beverage.
The power of food
Whether serving fast-casual or in his new full-service spot, Royer's goal remains the same: To help elevate Oklahoma food culture.
“Food is powerful,” he said. “It evokes strong emotions, happy memories. But when it's dumbed down, it loses its power.”
Royer believes Saturn Grill has helped embolden the dining populace with that power by adding value to its food through quality ingredients and classic techniques. Saturn Grill's position as one of the city's top fast-casual eateries has been a key cog in the growth of local dining. Royer's theory about the importance of food has stuck with me for years.
“Food is part of our survival,” Royer said. “I want people to revel in their survival.”
Changes at other sites
The new Saturn Grill not only signals a change in concept but a change in the brand. Both the original and Memorial Road Saturn Grill locations will soon transition into full-service restaurants.
“The Memorial Road location will be a snap,” he said. “It's set up for the change. Over at Nichols Hills Plaza we'll have to do some remodeling, so it could be a while longer there.”
In the meantime, you'll have to trek to Midtown for the new Saturn Grill experience, and when you try the fried polenta you'll understand what I mean when I say: “You're welcome.”
Like the first two Saturn Grill locations, the new one is open from 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Royer promises the Midtown spot will soon offer later hours on weekends.