By Greg Elwell
The Artesian Hotel in downtown Sulphur boasts a fine
restaurant to match its other luxuries.
It all starts with the drive.
There’s something magical about the southern Oklahoma sky as the sun refracts through the clouds and illuminates the wide-open canvas in audacious pinks, oranges and deep, dusky reds. There is no camera filter for this, just a painting that unfolds before you through the windshield as Highway 7 leads travelers to Sulphur and the singularly beautiful Artesian Hotel Casino and Spa.
As darkness falls, lights from the hotel suffuse the evening sky with a gentle glow. Following the steps to the main doors, the sturdy brick artifice opens up like a warm embrace until you hear it:
“Welcome to the Artesian.”
Once inside, it’s clear that no expense has been spared to create a relaxed opulence. The lobby is not fussy, but there’s nothing out of place. It is cared for, inviting and gorgeous.
Down the hall and to the right, diners will find Springs at The Artesian, the hotel’s signature dining spot. Reservations are not required but recommended, as the restaurant has become a destination not just for those staying at the hotel, but surrounding cities and towns.
On the night I dined at Springs, there were casual travelers grabbing a quick bite before exploring the hotel, couples enjoying their winnings from the casino, and a long table of happy ladies on a sabbatical from their husbands.
The variety of patrons was refreshing. The polished wood of the cheerfully lit dining room gave the night’s proceedings an air of class, but there was no doubt fun was on the menu. Fun and a whole lot of food.
The first course was a hit. The Shrimp and Avocado Ceviche was presented in a martini glass and looked vibrant and fresh – the shrimp and lime played against one another beautifully. The addition of avocado gives the otherwise light dish a sumptuousness and luxurious feel, while the pineapple and jalapeno awaken the senses with a pinprick of heat that never threatens to become overwhelming.
The Smoked Trout Dip was an effective appetizer, especially for those who enjoy the cool smoothness of cream cheese, which calms the heat of the horseradish and the boldness of the trout. Keeping with the seafood kick, there was nothing but excitement for Capisce’s Famous Calamari, served in a truly unique style. Rather than traditional rounds, the calamari is cut into long, thick strips and coated with Parmesan cheese before being fried. The texture was intoxicating – a firm bite that wasn’t chewy, but felt solid and satisfying. The flavor was marvelous, and the horseradish aioli brought out the subtle sweetness of the squid; served alongside is a fresh Pomodoro sauce that is worth drizzling on everything in sight!
Those looking for a sharable appetizer might prefer the Queso Blanco. As the name implies, this freshly made queso is not the shocking orange of processed cheese. Instead, the creamy paleness of the gooey cheese is studded liberally with flavorful bursts of color – onions, red peppers, green chilies and jalapenos provide crunch and heat to the otherwise mild queso. Spicy sausage adds a richness and depth to the dish, though it’s not too heavy.
And what is queso without house-made tortilla chips, crisp and perfectly seasoned? Add in a bowl of their roasted tomato salsa and it’s a pretty fancy Springs fiesta.
For the kids, the Fried Green Tomato BLT was a fine example with lots of applewood-smoked bacon served up at the perfect intersection of crisp and chewy. The flavor dominated the tender sweetness of the fried green tomatoes, but the toasted pretzel bun was buttery and soft – an inviting bite.
I didn’t get a chance to try it, but several tables seemed utterly delighted by the Monte Cristo, and with good reason. Even from my seat, I could see it was a slab of perfectly golden fried goodness, and the smiles on their faces were better than any review I could give.
Pork chops are a finesse item, and one that every chef should master. Springs’ version is the enormous and impressive double-cut Sun-Dried Tomato Pork Chop. This massive hunk of meat was butterflied and cooked perfectly to provide a delicate flavor that retained a moist, tender texture. The honey-glazed carrots served alongside are very nearly a dessert item, with a sweet crispness often lost when carrots are overcooked.
Where the Smoked Trout Dip was subtle, the Pan-Fried Trout was a joyous celebration of the assertive flavor of fresh fish. Trout is not a mild fish like tilapia or salmon, so this isn’t for the faint of heart. Rather, this is a fish for fishermen and campers, but prepared by expert chefs.
This preparation comes skin-on and features a moist, flavorful flesh. Seasoned to perfection and then drizzled with brown butter sauce, it’s a decadent meal with plenty for your taste buds to savor. Added texture to the flaky fish comes from sweet and crunchy toasted almonds. For a home-style meal, it is served with roasted garlic mashed potatoes and classic English peas.
Whatever else the menu provides, in Oklahoma, steaks are the mark of a great meal for many seeking a night out for a special occasion.
Springs offers Angus reserve cuts of beef at a variety of weights to ensure even the heartiest appetites are fulfilled. Ribeyes come in both 18 oz. bone-in and 12 oz. boneless options for those who like a fattier steak. The 6 oz. filet is extremely tender and flavorful in the hands of a skilled chef.
I opted for the 10 oz. sirloin because I’ve found this cut is too often maligned and rarely recognized for its blend of big, beefy flavor and tenderness. At Springs, I was served a medium-rare sirloin that exceeded my high expectations.
Wow! The steak knife found it’s way through the steak like it was a warm stick of butter, and the interior revealed a perfect medium-rare preparation. Each bite fell apart with little effort, melting into a rush of flavor. This steak alone is worthy of a trip.
On the side, I chose the creamy white wine risotto, and I couldn’t have been more pleased. Alone, the risotto was lightly sweet with just a bit of tooth – the mark of a well-done dish. But with the juice of the steak slowly soaking in, it became like a second entrée.
If you’ve only ever known risotto as something Gordon Ramsay screams about on TV, I implore you to try the one on the menu at Springs. You won’t be disappointed.
How does one save room for dessert after such a feast? But if your dessert tummy is still empty, you’ll want to try the Chocolate Ganache Torte. It’s an immense slice of big, creamy chocolate cake with the smooth, rich flavor of ganache, delicately paired with a moist crumb. Surrounded by rosettes of real whipped cream and sitting atop swirls of coconut and chocolate syrups, it’s a beauty to behold and a delight to destroy, forkful by forkful.
I wasn’t able to try the freshly baked chocolate cookies and milk, but only because I forgot to order them in advance. Be sure to place your order at the same time you get your entrée, because the cookies require a 40-minute lead-time. Yes, they’re that fresh!
Adult beverages are available at Springs, if you so choose. And I chose – with the help of a knowledgeable server – to enjoy an Argentinian Malbec from Alamos, in the Uco Valley. I found this wine to be the perfect capper to a truly satisfying dinner, but if you’re more for mixed drinks, Springs offers a fully stocked bar, as well.
Some will retire after a meal like this to a room upstairs, or return to the casino to play a few more games. Others will find themselves back on the road, the warm glow of the Artesian Hotel fading softly in their rearview mirrors.
And as the miles pass on their way to the next destination, their minds may wander as mine did to the comfortable, casually elegant dining room of Springs … to the smiling wait staff and fresh flowers on the tables. And to the glorious repast that will await them next time, just a short drive away in Sulphur, Oklahoma.