I’d Like The “Bette Midler Caesar” Please!

Tulsa World
Syrian salad at Celebrity Restaurant inspired by owner’s Lebanese heritage
by: CARY ASPINWALL World Scene Writer
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
9/22/2010 6:04:31 AM

In terms fitting for a restaurant named the Celebrity, the Caesar salad is Bette Midler and the Syrian salad is Barbara Hershey.

As in, their respective characters from the film “Beaches“: one the showy star, one the supportive friend with an interesting story.

In the Tulsa restaurant’s 47-year history, the spotlight has usually landed on the Caesar, prepared table-side and beloved by regulars as an opening course to the decadent steaks and fried chicken.

But the Syrian salad is a gentle nod to owner Mike Samara’s Lebanese heritage, and it usually wins over those who try it.

It’s a bit like Greek salad (minus the olives, onions, feta and peppers) and may share some heritage with fattoush, a Middle Eastern salad that includes pieces of toasted pita bread.

The recipe is simple: a clove of garlic mashed with salt, fresh lemon juice, soybean oil and dried mint, tossed with sliced tomatoes and a mix of romaine and iceberg lettuce, prepared table-side. It’s light, refreshing and crunchy.

The traditional recipe calls for cucumbers, but they’re optional (too many people can’t eat them), Samara said. You can use fresh mint if you want; the restaurant uses dried because it’s easier to find year-round.

Samara has been making it since the 1950s; the recipe came from his sister and was popularly featured in cookbooks of the era as Middle Eastern or Syrian salad.

“That’s what I’ve always known it as,” he said.

Samara was born and raised in Oklahoma City and started working at restaurants there in the 1950s. He learned the Caesar salad recipe from a maitre d’ who had worked at Chicago’s legendary Pump Room restaurant. Samara taught him how to make the Syrian salad.

So how did Samara and his salad end up in Tulsa? Eminent domain. The first restaurant he owned in Oklahoma City, called the Shangri-La, was across the street from the state capitol.

The state government decided it needed more office space, so it took the restaurant under eminent domain rights.

Samara hightailed it to Tulsa and bought a bar in 1963: the Celebrity Club (technically the Celebrity Restaurant now), which started as a private dinner club prior to passage of liquor-by-the-drink laws in Oklahoma. Eventually, it became a full-fledged restaurant.

He added menu items a few at a time; both salads were added that first year.

“When I first put Caesar on the menu in 1963, it was very rare in Tulsa,” he said.

Gentlemen like Samara are the rarity now, dressed in his sport coat and greeting guests warmly, wishing them well on their anniversaries and life-changing events. The red velvet-adorned dining room and menu have changed little through the years, which is one reason locals love it so.

Though Samara is Lebanese and the Celebrity is a steakhouse, it’s not a Lebanese steakhouse of the local tradition: no smoked ribs or bologna, tabouli or cabbage rolls. The only other nod to Samara’s roots on the menu is a hummus appetizer.

Now 86, his eyesight may be failing, but he still knows quality when he tastes it.

“I was in Vegas a few weeks ago, at a very upscale restaurant, and I had a Caesar salad there,” he said. “It was all right, but it wasn’t as good as ours.”

No Syrian salad on the menu there.

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