Hey we had dinner with John Wayne! Well, not exactly, but we were surrounded by memorabilia of the legendary actor during a recent visit to a Bixby restaurant that uses him as its namesake.
I fully expected -- as do many I have spoken with -- Duke's Southern Kitchen to be a chicken-fried, biscuit and gravy, cornbread and buttermilk sort of place.
It was a lot more than that.
Situated in the complex that houses the SpiritBank Event Center in Bixby, our first challenge was finding a parking spot. There was an event going on at the time and after several minutes of driving around, we entered a multilevel parking facility at the southeast corner of the area and finally found a spot. A word to the wise: Learn from my experience and head for that first.
As you walk into Duke's Southern Kitchen, a cozy bar area sits directly ahead -- a low-ceiling area, with the centerpiece: a circular bar surrounded by a high banquette with tables for two and four.
To the right, a dining room offers an open, high-ceiling feel with a bandstand at the far end. Curving stairs lead your eye to what is actually a second floor, loft-style dining area above. It's deceiving since the restaurant doesn't look that big to begin with, but Duke's actually has a lot of seating once you start adding up the tables.
The host stand to our left was a bustle of activity, with folks waiting for a table and a young lady and her manager keeping everything organized. If we opted for a spot in the bar area we could be seated immediately, so we did.
It was at this point that we realized what the Duke's moniker stood for, noticing a half-dozen head shots from some of the actor's 150-plus movies. Like him or not, that's an impressive resume.
For some reason I felt the need to hold my fork correctly and say "Please" and "Thank you" a lot. My wife says it's because my mom did a good job of raising me, but I still maintain it was because the John Wayne was looking down on me with a stern glare. One time I even heard him say, "Pilgrim, don't put your elbows on the table," but nobody else looked up.
Service seemed a bit confused to begin with and it appeared that no one knew that no one else had picked up our table. Other than water and menus, it took a while before we were acknowledged. Finally our bar and appetizer orders were taken by one of the bartenders, a young man who ended up being our server for the whole evening, despite the fact that the area had several other servers working it.
At any rate, the bartender's service was good, and he was cheerful and efficient. We learned later that it was his last shift before he moved on to another job -- a commentary on his work ethic since he still did an excellent job knowing he was halfway out the door. Maybe the Duke was talking to him, too!
We started with a pair of appetizers that gave us very high hopes for the evening to come.
Creole Lump Crab Cakes ($9) were served more or less deconstructed and the pile of crab was impressively large. A mushroom salad, apple wood-smoked bacon and Tabasco/garlic sauce made it an excellent choice.
I tried the Hoecake Sliders, ($6) an open-faced affair of mini corn cakes, piled high with smoky pork, microgreens and a spicy peach glaze. Excellent dish. They were both a very impressive start and promised great things to come. Presentation was surprisingly upscale and visually attractive and the appetizer course fairly flew out of the kitchen. Others near by got their appetizers just as fast and I was impressed after our somewhat rocky start.
Next was a cup of gumbo for me, a dish of smoky chicken, the holy trinity: celery, onion and bell peppers and a dark roux finish. It was very good.
Katie's choice was an Avery Island Wedge, named after the tiny island in Louisiana of Tabasco fame. A crisp cold wedge if iceberg, buttermilk bleu cheese dressing, crunchy cornbread croutons and wispy onion straws made for a great combination.
Up to this point everything came out in timely, if not rapid succession. Unfortunately, the trend didn't continue. The time between second course and entree was a glaring void. Since we had lots of free time, we observed that others were experiencing the same lapse, so I feel pretty confident it wasn't just a fluke at our table.
I waited on the blackened redfish, a dish of New Orleans origin, created by the great chef Paul Prudhomme some 20 or 25 years ago. It was served with a soft sweet carrot puree that sort of sprawled over the plate (the flavor was good) and a toss of green beans with ham bits.
Redfish is unmistakable in texture and flavor and this was the real deal. When Prudhomme's dish was all the rage, redfish was seriously overfished and the state of Louisiana put limits on the amount that could be exported. For a long time it was unattainable. It's nice to see it back. Unfortunately mine was tough and overcooked, with a crusty rubberiness that indicated it had sat in the hot window for too long. The carrot puree was crusted over and the beans were shriveled, adding to the suspicion.
Katie's BBQ Salmon suffered much the same fate, a shame since it was nicely presented and well conceived, served on a be of cornbread panzanella and classic Italian bread salad with a southern twist, green tomatoes and avocado. The sauce was tasty but had become gooey.
I hate to mention this, but the entrée issues made what could have been a great meal, just OK. I might be inclined to write it off by saying that somehow our order fell through the cracks were it not for the fact that everyone we observed -- probably four other tables -- followed precisely the same pattern. Quick apps and salads, then a terminally long wait for the entrée. It got to the point where we were all watching each other watching each other.
In spite of that, we ventured on to the dessert menu, recited by our server and opted for a cobbler with ice cream and a pecan torte, both of some note, even if it took a long time for them to be served as well. Both were quite good.
It has been said that a good waiter can save a bad meal, but a good meal can't save a bad waiter. Extrapolating on that concept I will say that our service professional was good enough that the few low points in the meal, while disappointing, were overcome by his charm and hard work.
Duke's provides a comfortable atmosphere -- the chef was constantly moving among the tables visiting with customers -- and by the time we left there was a live band playing some great music. Despite a few disappointments, the overall experience was good enough that I would go back and try it again and you should give them a fair chance as well.
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