It’s not like brunch was unheard of. It was a well-established concept long before 2010, when Ludivine first opened its doors, but owner and chef Russ Johnson wasn’t interested. “I’ve never particularly liked working brunch,” he said. “I like going to brunch. But most people in restaurants don’t love working brunch. That’s a pretty common sentiment in the industry.”
And Ludivine, Oklahoma City’s avant garde home of haute cuisine made with ultra-local, ultra-seasonal ingredients, didn’t need the added work. It turns out, Johnson said, running a world-class restaurant is kind of hard. “What we do here is labor intensive just doing five dinner services a week,” he said. “Adding lunch or brunch throws a wrench in it.” That’s because Ludivine has a single kitchen staff. Everyone works the same station each day. There’s no blaming problems on the day shift for not prepping enough food for you — that’s up to each member of the kitchen. “It helps with consistency and accountability,” he said. And when you’re cooking a menu that changes weekly, and sometimes more often than that, consistency is key to success. So how is it that Ludivine, which proudly resisted Oklahoma City’s descent into brunch-thirsty madness, started served brunch this summer? It was the staff. “They wanted it,” Johnson said. “They were saying they could do it. Asking to do brunch. If the staff wants to turn a non-revenue day into a revenue day, it seems silly not to at least give it a shot.”
If the staff wants to turn a non-revenue day into a revenue day, it seems silly not to at least give it a shot.
It didn’t hurt that customers had been asking for brunch since the very beginning, either. But there are always risks, he said. Ludivine is, oddly, still kind of isolated within the bustling midtown area. What if the restaurant began offering brunch and it didn’t take off? There’s always that feeling of failure when you start something and then roll it back. So instead of saying, “Ludivine does brunch now,” Johnson decided to do a trial run. Memorial Day to Labor Day. I was there the first week and, as he said, it was clearly something fans of the restaurant were waiting for. A few months in, Ludivine is extending the trial run through fall. It may become, like so many things on Ludivine’s menu, seasonal. “If you think about it, spring and summer are the most appropriate times of year for brunch. I mean, yeah, you can get strawberries in January, but that’s not how we roll here,” Johnson said. “So we may suspend it for a while and bring it back. The McRib model. You take it away before people get bored with it and then you bring it back.”
Talking with Johnson was like embracing a spiritual food twin. Not only does he make dishes that give me a bad case of the swoons, but his culinary philosophy hews incredibly close to my own. His rules boil down to this:
- High-calorie foods are fine, but they better taste amazing.
- A dish’s first job is to taste excellent. Interesting is nice, but without the flavor, it’s not worth the trouble.
- You don’t have to leave stuffed, but you should leave satisfied.
For a perfect example of these pillars, look no further than Ludivine’s brunch menu and the utterly amazing Offal Waffle ($16).
I’m not one who goes out seeking a lot of organ meat for breakfast (sorry, calf brains and eggs at Cattlemen’s Steakhouse), but this dish made me a believer. The offal are sweetbreads (aka thymus glands) that are chicken-fried to a glorious crispy golden brown, served over a Belgian waffle with house-made pecan brittle and drizzled with Maderia maple syrup. My breakfast tastes tend toward the savory, but I’ll order the Offal Waffle every chance I get. The sweetbreads are firm, with a texture reminiscent of chicken — which is why Johnson chose them for his take on chicken and waffles — and being chicken-fried certainly doesn’t hurt. What doesn’t taste great when it’s dredged in flour and spices and fried in oil? Look to your left. The person sitting there would definitely taste wonderful if prepared that way. If there isn’t anybody to your left, he or she is probably being tenderized at this very moment. Since sweetbreads are classically paired with a Maderia wine sauce, Johnson decided to incorporate the wine into the maple syrup for a flavor that had my head spinning. It’s a ridiculous dish and one that I am dreaming about on the daily. One of Russ’s favorite dishes is the Croque Tartine Parisienne ($18), which migrated over from the R&J Lounge and Supper Club menu. This French classic tops thick-cut, knife-worthy bread with meaty slices of rosemary ham, creamy béchamel, a perfectly fried egg and a blend of emmenthal and raclette cheeses broiled to create that dark brown crispy sea of melted goodness over the top. It may be French in origin, but the croque is positively Oklahoman in its ability to sate your every craving. The richly flavored ham brings the weight while the egg and béchamel give it a creamy, luxurious mouthfeel. It’s a calorie bomb, make no mistake, but it’s well worth the carnage.
Anything worth doing is worth doing well and while I am over the moon that shrimp and grits have become a staple on Oklahoma’s brunch menus, I am overcome with respect for Johnson’s willingness to take it one step further. Ludivine’s butter-poached lobster tail and popcorn grits ($23) is the definition of indulgence. The butter-poached lobster is decadent and the lobster reduction reinforces the mild, ocean-y sweetness of the shellfish with the creamy grits. On top, diners will find a panoply of succulent flavors in pieces of okra, shishito pepper, garlic and tomatoes. Oh, those tomatoes. Perhaps it’s odd on a dish of lobster to be so enamoured with cherry tomatoes, but the way they’re prepared is pure magic. The skins are still taut, like they’re fresh-picked, but the insides have liquified so that every bite pops and immediately floods the mouth with the essence of the garden. While Johnson doesn’t like a gimmick, he does acknowledge that having a pair of restaurants gives him certain freedoms. While R&J’s menu has a classic Eggs Benedict, Ludivine is free to explore something a bit more avant garde.
The lox bagel benny ($18) includes a bread pudding made of everything bagels that is firm, yet creamy and packs that seed-and-garlic punch in every bite. On top of that is salty house-cured salmon lox, poached eggs and a cream cheese sauce with red onion caper relish. It’s a novel take on the classic and one I find deeply satisfying. It’s a powerful dish with bold flavors in a delicate preparation. As a seasoned brunch-goer, seeing “The Obligatory Omelette” ($16) on the menu had me snickering. It’s a great nod to the fact that brunch, however beloved, is often trapped in a box of expectations. Yes, you must have an omelet on the menu. It’s probably the least interesting thing the kitchen staff will make all day, but it fills a need. After all, not everyone is comfortable with offal or grits. Pain perdue ($12) is the lowest-priced entree on the menu, but its sales are lagging. Perhaps it’s because diners don’t know it’s basically Ludivine’s version of French toast. Rather than simply dipping bread in eggwash, though, the staff uses Esca Vitae brioche and soaks it for 12 hours in custard before baking it, giving the dish a souffle-style treatment before topping it with apple-rosemary compote. I’d like to order it. Really, I would. But I’m kind of locked in on the Offal Waffle and the next dish — huevos con tamales ($16). Making tamales is a fool’s errand, but more the fool me for doubting Russ Johnson. His pork tamales are wonderful. There are no half-measures here. Each one is briefly fried, giving the masa a bit of crispiness while keeping them light. On top are fried eggs and a chili verde sauce that I want to come out of the faucets in my home.
The egg yolk infuses the sauce with an added creaminess that enrobes each bite of tamale for a flavorful burst of slow-building heat. But let us not overlook the unsung hero of the dish: refritos. Oh, refried beans, how I love you and how I loathe you. So irresistable when done well, but so disappointing when given short shrift. That’s not a worry at Ludivine. The same care that goes into a hearty shellfish stew or an excellent wagyu steak is put into the refritos. They are creamy, flavorful and hearty. Every forkful of tamale, swirled in refritos and covered in egg and chili verde, is a dream. The blend of textures and flavors are simply perfect. And, thank god, Ludivine’s brunch is here for a little while longer. Do yourself a favor and make a reservation now. You will not be sorry.