Just the name -- The Tropical -- conjures thoughts of reclining beachside with a Mai Tai or Mojito. Even if The Tropical is just a few paces off busy Memorial Dr., still it is an oasis among the fast-paced fury of life.
My friend and I were here in October for the opening, but now we are returning for a relaxing meal and fine conversation. It's a little hard to erase the mind of former restaurants in this location: Rosie's Steak House and the Flying Roll. Still, walking in from the parking lot, the experience begins. Alongside the entrance is a fine manicured lawn and herb garden, the herbs of which I later discovered are used in meal preparation. Inside, guests are immediately situated in the bar area. It's a cozy destination in itself with a beautiful full granite bar, impressive wood paneling, dim lighting, and spacious seating. We opted, rather, to sit in the dining room.
The dining room is a comfortable and casual area with granite-topped tables, cherry-wood chairs and gentle recessed lighting. Asian artifacts are cleverly placed about the walls. Manager Gerrod Kennedy said The Tropical is owned by the Karn family, who also owns the very popular Lanna Thai Restaurant. Kennedy said the renovation of this space took about two years: The time and effort shows. He said "the wall pieces are authentic, coming from Laos, Thailand or Cambodia." There's even a wooden relief on the back wall of the dining room that is more than 300 years old. Apart from the choice of music (somewhat obnoxious, too punky), all this is a fine backdrop for a fine dining experience.
"Our executive chef," said Kennedy, "is from Thailand. She [Chef Renu Jansala] grew up learning how to cook from her mother. All recipes are hers." Owner Tana Karn said some of Chef Jansala's recipes are reflections from dishes at Thailand resorts. In addition, he said her husband is vegan, so the menu is "vegan friendly with a number of vegan dishes." Karn said the menu is full of Thai influences: The spiciness, curries and lemon grass are three areas he said define the cuisine. He defines the cuisine as very fresh, with a number of herbs, seafood and curry, "drawing every bit of possible flavor from the herbs" to accentuate the food. "The fresh herbs, all blended together, combine to highlight the flavor of the food. It creates a different level of a flavor profile for the foods," he said.
My friend and I were eager to experience this. The menu is reasonable and manageable: not too large and cumbersome. From the Starters menu, we selected Thai Tofu ($7) from other options such as Garlic Edamame, Corn Cakes, Tempeh Crisps, Fried Calamari, Rambutan Chicken and Tempura Oysters. The tofu dish, said Karn, is "made with herbs fresh out of our garden. The soft tofu is breaded with panko bread crumbs and lightly fried." This comes with a lime sweet-and-sour sauce which Karn said is infused with lime, ginger and red onions. This was an attractive presentation on the white dish: The colors and the draping of the julienned salad made us pause to contemplate the thought that went into this arranging dish. A beautiful salad mixture of julienned carrots, green apple, ginger, chopped red onion and cilantro tops the tofu. This was an amazing dish of gentle and bold flavors, blended well together to add texture and exotic flavors to each bite of the fried tofu.
For our entrée, I selected the Tropical Duck ($19) and my friend ordered the Scallops ($17) with Red Curry sauce. Karn said that fresh fish is flown in three times each week. The seasonal choices Fresh Off the Grill section of the menu boasts of Atlantic Canadian Salmon, Swordfish, Rainbow Trout, Mahi Mahi, Chilean Sea Bass, Scallops and Shrimp. Sauces for the fish include red curry, sweet pepper mango, rainbow herb, lemon butter and island sweet and sour.
Both entrees were plated beautifully with much attention given to details. My friend's six large scallops were resting on the red curry sauce which was centered on the square white plate. This meal was cleverly arranged with a small mound of Jasmine rice on one corner, with fresh cut lemon and a sprig of rosemary on another. Karn said that "with these sauces, we prepare everything right then and there -- we do not pull an already prepared sauce out of the fridge." He added that the sauces are not meant to "overwhelm the fish," but rather simply accent it. This red curry sauce, said Karn, is "adventuresome," made with lemon grass and coconut milk; chopped red and green bell peppers were also part of the sauce. It was a delightful eating experience, my friend said. The soft scallops were grilled perfectly and the sauce blended well with the buttery, creamy flavor of the scallops. Grilled asparagus was a nice addition to the scallops and sauce.
The duck entrée was sliced duck breast with house made tamarind sauce. This was served with jasmine rice, steamed broccoli and pickled ginger. Karn describes the duck as a "premium, higher grade of duck." It is less "gamey" than some might anticipate. The prep for this dish, said Karn, is that the duck is roasted in a wok with soy sauce and herbs, and the result is a beautiful fusion of flavors. He said, and I noticed this when eating the duck, that a layer of fat remains on one side of the duck to add a soft texture, a creaminess to the meat. The jasmine rice, Karn said, "refreshes the palate between bites." The duck gravy, which is layered over the duck, is the rainbow herb sauce, using tamarind as the defining ingredient for the sauce. Tamarind is a pod of a tropical tree containing seeds in an acidic juicy pulp -- having a sweet-and-sour taste. The duck was very tender and rich. Dipped in the tamarind sauce (which had hints of garlic and ginger) and with a little piece of fresh ginger, the duck tasted even better. The broccoli was fresh, and perfectly steamed and was tossed with a light sweet soy-based sauce.
Real Food. Experiencing fresh Asian seafood fashion in dishes such as 3-kind mushroom soup and seared sushi-grade ahi at the Tropical, 8125 E. 49th Street.
We could not resist the Mango Crisps for dessert. Karn describes them, as other customers have, as "mango donut holes." Small pieces of fresh mango are deep fried in a cake-like batter then dipped quickly into a mixture of honey and powdered sugar. Karn describes them as "a mango blast with honey and sugar." These were fabulous. A little whipped cream came with these little mango donuts, small enough to pop into your mouth.
This dining experience was one of the best in the city. Karn said that The Tropical might be the only place in Tulsa where fresh herbs are picked right out of the garden and on-site greenhouse and used in the meal preparation. The Tropical is a great find and a remarkable destination for Asian fusion dining.
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