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First Looks: Union Wood Fired Grill

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Say what you will about Meat Market Refectory, but I think we were all impressed with how long it lasted.

For those who never tried it, Meat Market Refectory was a restaurant that combined a meat market (duh) with a high-end breakfast/lunch/dinner/drinks spot. Why would people want to buy their meat from the restaurant rather than just have the restaurant cook it? I don’t know. And given how quickly that conceit was abandoned, I’d guess most people actually wouldn’t like to buy their meat from a restaurant.

A refectory is a dining room in a monastery or a boarding school, so I guess there was a refectory? It’s just that most people don’t know what a refectory is and that probably didn’t do much to increase traffic.

Tomato salad

After a rotating cast of chefs and a change in ownership, MMR, as it came to be known, was making good food for a clientele that had largely evaporated under previous iterations.

“I tried to convince the owners (Lance and Cindy Ruffel) to shut down for a few weeks and change the name in 2017,” said executive chef and now co-owner Jonas Favela.

Instead, they tried to salvage what was left of MMR’s good name and, to a degree, succeeded. The online reviews had largely turned around, but there was too much damage done to regain many of Oklahoma City’s dining public.

So MMR is dead. Buried beneath the refectory, perhaps. And Favela and the Ruffels shut down the restaurant, made some changes to the interior and completely revamped the menu for their new concept: Union Wood Fired Grill.

It’s an exciting prospect for Favela, a gifted chef who has always inherited the mantle from others, as this is his first opportunity to create his own menu and his own concept.

“Union is my style,” he said. “Finally I’m not doing someone else’s menu or someone else’s recipes.”

Wood-grilled shishito peppers

As a culinary nomad, Favela was lucky enough to train under some of Oklahoma City’s best chefs. Though he wasn’t classically trained, he said he picked up plenty of good habits from his mentors and he’s looking forward to passing what he’s learned to future generations.

His journey also meant picking up different influences at every kind of restaurant, which has Union sitting at the intersection of French, Mexican, Italian, Asian and contemporary American cooking.

MMR was primarily a steakhouse when it opened and Union retains some of that ethos, if not the same menu. As the name implies, however, much of the food is cooked on a new wood-fired grill, which brings a kind of rustic feel to some very high-class dishes.

Chopped steak with garlic au jus

The grilled shishito peppers ($8) with garlic and shallots and a drizzle of balsamic caramel are delightful. The char on the peppers was smoky, a nice contrast to the brightness of the peppers, and the balsamic caramel added a touch of complex sweetness. It’s also nice to have an appetizer that encourages the use of your fingers, especially in a spot so many thought of previously as a bit stuffy.

The tomato salad ($7) had just a bit of greenery, but was more focused — as well it should be — on a collection of heirloom cherry tomatoes drizzled in a honey-truffle vinaigrette with slivers of red onion. My only suggestion would be that the tomatoes are cut in half before serving, as I did a fair amount of chasing ripe red orbs with my fork before I could finally wrangle them into my mouth.

Along with filets and dry-aged ribeyes and racks of lamb, I was excited to see Union serves a chopped steak ($16). Somewhere between a hamburger patty and a steak, the chopped steak is a collection of meaty scraps that are seasoned and charred and served (in this case) with whipped potatoes, a black garlic au jus and some of the best elotes I’ve ever eaten in my life.

Elotes

I have little doubt that Favela, who ran the kitchen at Boulevard Steakhouse among others, can do amazing things with a filet and a dry-aged ribeye. But making a chopped steak worth savoring is a feat unto itself. I was not disappointed in the least.

Look for a full review of Union Wood Fired Grill in the months to come. I’m eager to see how the restaurant changes and as the staff get the new menu nailed down, but if you’re looking for permission to go try this new concept, consider it fully granted. I’m hopeful that Union will be with us much longer than MMR ever was.

About the Author

Founder and Eater-in-Chief of I Ate Oklahoma, Greg Elwell has been reviewing restaurants and writing about Oklahoma’s food culture for more than a decade. Where a normal person orders one meal, this guy gets three. He is almost certainly going to die young and those who love him most are fairly ambivalent about it. You can email Greg at greg@iateoklahoma.com.

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