Friends plan four restaurants in Norman, Oklahoma City

August 14, 2015

Steve Lackmeyer
The Oklahoman

The co-founder and owner of La Baguette and the former top chef at the Skirvin Hilton Hotel, Vast and Flint are teaming up to open three restaurants in Deep Deuce.

It’s a vision that began three years ago for Rudy Khouri and Andrew Black, but in a twist of fate, the pair are starting up their first restaurant on a quick turnaround on Norman’s Campus Corner. The common tie between the two projects, Meatball House, is the first such meatball-focused restaurant in the Oklahoma City metro area and is set to open in September.

“It’s a concept we’ve seen around the world, and during our travels we visited places where meatballs were on the menu front and center,” Black said. “We then began talking about how we could do something where the meatball is the main focus with everything built around it.”

Meatball House will first open in September at 333 W Boyd in Norman, with the second Meatball House to open alongside a La Baguette Express and private chef’s table and lounge in Deep Deuce as part of the Maywood Apartments being built at NE 3 and Walnut Avenue.

Khouri said the Deep Deuce restaurants, including Meatball House, were planned three years ago to be the commercial anchor for the apartments, but the project was delayed when the complex was redesigned to relocate the parking underground. Those restaurants now are set to open by late 2016.

“Even though there was a delay in construction due to the parking, we never wavered on the idea that we wanted to do something together,” Khouri said. “We’re finally realizing our dream coming true, but starting it in Norman.”

The pair, both successful immigrants, were friends since Black first moved to Oklahoma City in 2006. They routinely collaborated on fundraising dinners and were cooking for Paul Coakley, archbishop of the Oklahoma City Archdiocese, and Emeritus Archbishop Eusebius Joseph Beltran when Khouri first mentioned to Black that a popular restaurant on Campus Corner had just closed.

The restaurant, Cafe Plaid, was in a historic building that was initially home to a Harold’s clothing store and across the street from the North Oval of the University of Oklahoma and one block away from the home of OU President David Boren.

“It’s a great spot,” Khouri said. “Not only is it across the street from OU, but we are surrounded by great neighbors — churches, the OU Foundation — it’s at the gateway to Campus Corner.”

The pair incorporated some key aspects of the design for the Deep Deuce restaurant, which were created by Steve Spitz.

“We want this to be an exciting, fun and casual place,” Black said. “It’s not an Italian restaurant, which people assume when they hear ‘meatball.’ It’s a comfort food that will be made in a lot of different sauces and in ways that can appeal to just about everyone. Everyone can relate to meatballs — we will have turkey, pork and beef meatballs. And our guests will have the choice of chimichurri, barbecue, mushroom gravy, pesto, Gorgonzola, tomato and meat sauce.

Sides will include cream corn, sea salt French fries, tabouli, mashed potatoes, and macaroni and cheese.

“The whole vision is a place where you leave your problems at the door,” Black said. “You celebrate your time and life — it’s not like a hotel restaurant.”

And that’s exactly what Black was seeking when he began plotting a change in his career with Khouri. For years, the Jamaican-born chef had worked for hotel, resort and corporate employers and while he loved Oklahoma City, he yearned to have more control over his art.

Khouri shared a similar background in that he, too, found a home in Oklahoma City after emigrating from Lebanon in 1980 to attend OU, where he initially sought to become a doctor.

A car crash diverted Khouri into another direction when he realized he could make money while laid up by ordering pita bread from California and reselling it to fellow students at a profit.

Out of that humble beginning, La Baguette was born, with Khouri eventually licensing the name and concept to Michel and Alain Buthion for the Oklahoma City restaurant in the late 1990s while Khouri continued to own and run the main bakery and restaurant in Norman.

Selling the concept of fresh-baked pastries and breads wasn’t easy at first, Khouri said, and customers needed to be educated about the variety of European baked goods, how best to use them in various meals, and the difference between preservative-packed breads sold at stores versus fresh items from a bakery.

“The market has evolved,” Khouri said. “With time and more exposure, and with more great chefs moving in, the public is demanding better quality and variety. The Oklahoma food scene has moved to a different tier, and these different concepts are more acceptable.”

The pair created a new company, Culinary Edge, that they will control and will be the foundation for what they hope will be a growing venture in years ahead. They are hiring employees with the goal of creating opportunities for them to advance in their careers and play a role in the company’s future growth.

Black said he also looks forward to having a free hand in giving back to the community.

“For a long time, I’ve always wanted to get out of the corporate world, the hotel restaurant world, and it came alive three years ago when Rudy and I got together to create Culinary Edge,” Black said. “The goal for Culinary Edge is create really great restaurants. We don’t want to go with massive growth. But what we want is to create a higher culinary level and build upon what is already here.”