As the Cafe Pompeii pop-up restaurant concept at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art was winding down, general manager Robert Painter reached out to Chef Michael Haddad about taking the reins of the museum cafe.
“Michael has been operating successfully downtown for years, so he knows the downtown clientele, and he’d historically expressed an interest in the cafe space,” Painter said.
Haddad’s experience ranges from traditional Lebanese food—he was adopted into a Lebanese family in Clinton, Oklahoma, at birth—to burgers like the one he makes at Richey’s Grill in the Oklahoma Tower (and for which he is rightly locally famous).
“From the time I heard from Robert and worked out a deal with the board, it took six weeks for my wife Andi and I to design Centre Bistro, including developing recipes,” Haddad said. “The board had expressed a desire not to close down between Pompeii and Centre, so we really had to scramble.”
Centre Bistro does not feel like it was created quickly, though, and that’s partly due to an operational space already existing, but also because Haddad developed a focused, tight menu that draws on his strengths as a chef.
“I wanted to expose clientele to all the things I’ve learned, from Dubai to downtown OKC,” Haddad said. “Rather than create dishes that are single-country origins, as with Lebanese food, I blended flavors and techniques from my experience in many places, taking the best of all those genres.”
The Haddads enjoyed the nearly detective-like work of discovering the origins of dishes down to the actual names, so bucatini carbonara is now Cavalcanti’s Carbonara, named for the chef who created it. Each dish on the menu has received the same care and attention to detail. The mac ‘n’ cheese features sharp cheddar and bread crumbs, but the porcini powder tones down the pungency of the cheddar, making for a creamy, satisfying dish served with fresh focaccia.
Haddad’s skill with the burger is on full display in the Il Romeo, an 8-ounce beef patty with gorgonzola, pancetta, and house-made onion marmalade. While he’s mainly known for his burgers and shawarma at Richey’s, the favorite on the Centre Bistro menu is likely to be the Pava Romesco Melt. Every member of the staff saw it on the table, and offered unsolicited praise: “That’s the best thing on the menu!” “I eat it every day!” “Best turkey sandwich ever!”
They were not wrong. It’s easily the best turkey sandwich I’ve had, but calling it a turkey sandwich minimizes how special this sandwich is. It’s certain that the house romesco adds something lovely, but Haddad dresses all the greens he serves, so the arugula comes dressed with olive oil and salt, meaning it doesn’t hit your palate like freshly picked leaves. The turkey is delicious, the arugula adds a peppery note, the fontina is creamy wonderful, and the bun is both soft and sturdy, so you can eat it the way it’s intended: like a sandwich.
Centre Bistro—named for the original Centre Theater that once occupied the Museum of Art’s space—has a full bar, including wine, local beer, and craft cocktails. Lunch will be served Tuesday through Sunday, dinner only on Friday and Saturday nights, and brunch only on Sunday. The grand opening is Saturday, Dec. 4.