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Kitchen 324 pays homage to the past in pushing Oklahoma City area dining forward
By Dave Cathey
| Published: January 23, 2013
With its most ambitious concept to date, A Good Egg Dining Group has used a portion of Oklahoma City's history to offer a great new place to eat and abet the ongoing makeover of downtown.
An opportunity presented by SandRidge Energy allowed an idea sown about two years ago — to re-imagine the city's historic cafeteria culture — to see sunlight on the corner of Robinson Avenue and Dean A. McGee.
Kitchen 324 boasts American Rustic Cuisine, pumping out lunch, breakfast, breads and pastries seven days a week. To pull that off, corporate chef Robert Black's staff operates the subterranean kitchen all but about two hours a day.
Turns out, A Good Egg President Keith Paul and his wife and business partner, Heather, have unlocked the code for paying homage to the past while giving the needle for local dining a violent shove forward.
Kitchen 324 became A Good Egg Dining's crowning achievement with a simple formula: dream big, hire passionate people and cook from scratch.
Adjusting the concept
When cafeterias ruled Oklahoma City dining, the model was enormous. Boulevard Cafeteria, the last of the city's classic cafeterias, still operates under the old model, which included an enormous kitchen, huge dining room and comfort food made from scratch daily by a legion of cooks. The only kitchens like that anymore, outside of Boulevard Cafeteria, are typically commissary kitchens that supply multiple units.
Kitchen 324's main kitchen is below ground, and it's plenty large, but it's certainly not the largest kitchen in the city.
Keith Paul said the team also felt it was important to offer the high-quality service the group has a reputation for offering at places such as Red Primesteak, Cheever's Cafe, Iron Starr Urban BBQ and Republic American Gastropub.
“And we didn't want people walking around with trays either,” said Heather Paul.
The answer for the Pauls was a style of service unseen in this market. Kitchen 324 offers counter service and table service simultaneously. Whether you initially order from the main counter or the coffee counter, goods are delivered to your table, and additional ordering can be done from the table.
“We had to create a new POS (point of sales) system to accommodate what we wanted to do,” Keith Paul said.
The last spirit from the city's Golden-Age cafeterias the Pauls sought to channel was with the decor. Revered cafeterias such as Dodson's, Queen Anne, Anna Maude's and Lady Classen's didn't scrimp on the decor.
“The local cafeterias I grew up with were beautiful,” Heather Paul said. “They were almost fine dining.”
Located in the classic Braniff Building, white paint and floor-to-ceiling windows make Kitchen 324 a magnet for sunshine and conduit for positive energy.
Opening the door puts you in a good mood — unless a line of people stretches from the register to the tips of your toes. But then, that puts the Good Egg team in a good mood, so somebody is always happy at Kitchen 324.
The interior is a combination of what was great about the Braniff building with modern flourishes.
Cool + comfort food = American Rustic
As important as service is, food is the business. Not good food, great food.
To maintain the cafeteria feel, a dizzying array of fresh-made salads, breads and desserts flank the main register. At the coffee counter, you'll also find fresh doughnuts and pastries within view.
The menus show range without offering every side dish your grandmother ever made. What is on the menu is founded on reinterpreted comfort food, showcasing flavors made common thanks to the proliferation of world food culture.
Say goodbye to the trusty cafeteria roast beef under a heat lamp and sliced to order, and hello to the pot-roast-style braised short ribs or the hand-carved French dip tenderloin. Rather than casting buckets of fried chicken under another heat lamp to wait for a dance partner or serve chicken pot pie from sheet tray mounted over a steam table, the two comfort-food staples are combined into the transcendent fried chicken pot pie.
The meatloaf left to gasp for moisture on the line is put to rest in favor of a turkey meatloaf with smoked tomato gravy and smashed potatoes.
Deli favorites get a new set of duds, too. The classic BLT gets a boost with chef Chris McCabe's house-cured bacon plus oven-roasted tomatoes, avocado mayonnaise and house-made bread. Peanut butter and jelly play three's company with nutella, and classics such as chicken salad, grilled cheese and pastrami are supercharged by A Good Egg's all-star kitchen staff, which is headed by Black and McCabe and executed by Coach House Apprenticeship grads Beth Ann McFarlane and Vuong Nguyen plus chef Lee Bennett, who left a great gig at The Iguana Mexican Grill to be a part of this ambitious concept.
Breakfast is equally inspired, offering fresh-pressed juices, coffee curated by A Good Egg's beverage director Jason Ewald, various teas and pastries.
Hearty breakfast entrees on the menu draw inspiration from home and abroad. The fried green tomato Benedict and the cat head biscuit with chorizo gravy are brilliant plays on classic morning fare. The soft-baked eggs with braised white beans and speck ham topped with poblano pesto is a good way to put yourself right back into bed to let the impending food coma run its course.
In some cases, Kitchen 324 kills two birds with one stone. The salmon-and-lox-inspired smoked salmon sandwich with pickled quail egg, double-whipped cream cheese, capers and slivered red onions on a homemade bagel is on both lunch and breakfast menus. For lunch, it stands in for the old baked fish present on every cafeteria that ever stood.
Due to overwhelming demand on weekends, Kitchen 324 offers a brunch menu.
“We found out right away people wanted breakfast all day on the weekends,” Keith Paul said.
Paul also said large crowds caused them to adjust their counter-service format slightly.
“When the line gets too long, we just hold people back from ordering until tables come available,” he said.
They had some trouble with folks table-squatting while friends or family ordered at the counter, which completely throws off the flow of a concept like this.
Baked goods are a challenge
Keith and Heather Paul and chef Robert Black will tell you the breads and pastries Kitchen 324 offers presented the biggest challenge they've ever faced with any concept they've opened.
So big, in fact, they enlisted the help of chef Pierre Fauvet, a renowned pastry chef who happens to be friends with chef Black's mentor Kurt Fleischfresser of The Coach House.
Asked the most important thing he learned during this process, Keith Paul said, “Pierre Fauvet's phone number.”
Fauvet spent two weeks training staff, refining recipes and teaching pastry techniques.
Chef Black said tapping Fauvet was the smartest thing they did during the process.
After one bite of the pecan pie Paul told me was Pierre's recipe, I didn't need to hear another word. Sold.
Kitchen 324 will sell fresh bread daily along with an assortment of pies, pastries and desserts all developed under Fauvet's direction. You will not be disappointed.
What's not to like?
Let us not pretend Kitchen 324 as it currently operates is perfect. It's not open for dinner. It is not currently taking call-in orders. It's not next-door to my house.
On the other hand, any restaurant that opens without giving itself room to grow is doing itself a disservice.
Construction still vexes downtown, making parking a problem. If you work downtown, like I will be starting sometime next year, Kitchen 324 is a godsend.
Keith Paul said the restaurant isn't taking call-in orders, but that will change soon. He said they also plan to offer limited delivery for downtown and commercial catering.
When A Good Egg Dining took on the fried-onion burger with Tucker's, they did it with aplomb and surgical precision.
With Kitchen 324, they've opened a box sure to inspire other chefs and restaurateurs.
After dragging the 1960s and '70s for cafeteria inspiration and the 1950s and '90s for coffee bar culture, the only thing left for Keith and Heather Paul to do is raid the 1980s and 2000s for an upscale fajita concept that couples Fresh-Mex and frozen yogurt. Maybe call it Fro Yo La Tengo.
I would hold my breath until that concept comes to life, but that would make it impossible to enjoy a fried chicken pot pie with a slice of pecan pie from Kitchen 324.
The world where that will happen exists on a plane of consciousness assigned to a life beyond this one.