Levain is All About the People
On one of Tulsa’s recent grey, rainy days, I find refuge from the deluge in Levain Restaurant and Bakery, in the Shops at Seville at Yale and 101st. Walking in, I can tell that Levain is two things:
First, it’s a place where a lot of work gets done. A pastry chef is tasting a filling as it swirls in a mixer; a cashier asks a smiling couple how their meal was; and a chef with a beard and a flat-brimmed Heirloom Rustic Ales hat is scoring a pan of baguettes before they go into the oven.
The chef with the hat is Trey Winkle, who worked previously as R Bar’s executive chef. After four and a half years in Brookside, he wanted to open something smaller. He wanted to focus on the food and the people: creating local sourcing partnerships, rotating a seasonal menu and connecting with clientele.
So he and his wife, Christina, along with business partner Angie Scott, opened Levain, a seasonal restaurant and bakery.Christina quickly reminds me of the second thing I noticed about Levain: It’s all about the people here. Everyone sitting here is engaged in close, quiet conversation. No one has their cell phones out.
She worried that taking over an existing location (which used to hold Café Seville) would cause the neighborhood to reject them. But they’ve been roundly embraced, she says.
“I don’t know if ‘shocked’ is the appropriate word,” she says, “but I was astonished by how welcoming everyone was.”
Restaurants move pretty fast, Trey says, and when they’re busy it can be a blur of movement in the exposed kitchen. But he says that recently a woman told him that that movement was an asset, not a drawback.
“She told me that usually, whenever they go out to restaurants, it’s kind of hard because her son is on the spectrum. But he was able to sit at the bar and watch us work, and she says it took his mind off of a lot of things.” She wanted to bring him back.
“We hauled ass to get the place open,” he says, finally finding his break in the work to sit down. In the beginning, he says, some days were better than others. Some days he’d only see 20 or 30 people come in the door, which was worrisome. They wondered if they had made the right choice.
But then friends put out the word, a review in the World got them some attention and business started picking up. Now that business is steady, he’s relaxed.
Levain is a relaxing place. The decor is spare but memorable, with gold lamps over the tables and some complex charcoal drawings by local artist Taylor Young on the walls. The chairs’ mustard cushions contrast nicely with the green booths, and there’s a cozy fireplace in the corner.
Christina comes in. She and Angie did the decor for the restaurant.
“Pinterest helped a lot.
“It was really cool to hear that,” he says. “It’s special that, because we get to do everything by hand, there’s always something to do. It doesn’t matter if people are coming in the door or not, we always have a ton of stuff we’re trying to get done.”
After the interview, I ask if it’s too late to get a grilled cheese. Trey practically hops into the kitchen and cuts a couple of inch-thick slices of sourdough. On go slices of brie and a pile of caramelized onions and mushrooms, then a generous portion of gruyere on top. It all goes into the oven.
When the sandwich comes out, the gruyere is cascading down the sides. After a thorough grilling, Trey slices it in half and pours mornay sauce and chives in the middle, so that when I pick it up, it oozes out. The mushrooms and onions bring out the nuttiness of the cheese, and the sourdough is crunchy and fragrant. Along with a mug of DoubleShot coffee, it’s solved the dreariness of the rain outside.
As I’m walking up to pay, Trey asks a departing customer to tell her husband hello for him.
“Every day,” he tells me, “my wife and I are right here.” He likes the way he can feel the humanity of the customers when the kitchen is so close. “I’ve had some of the best conversations of my life at 2:45, right when we’re about to close.”