Since it opened in March 2012, Oxheart has racked up more kudos, both local and national, than I can keep track of (you can read about some of them here). It’s at or near the top of every list of Houston’s best restaurants. We visited the restaurant when it first opened, and were looking forward to trying it again last week.
The restaurant describes itself as “a restaurant in Houston that gathers Texas’s best ingredients, cooked in a focused, creative way.” Chef Justin Yu can regularly be found prowling the farmers market for seasonal produce, and will always take a minute to stop and answer a question about what he’s planning to make that evening. Focusing on seasonal ingredients in Houston this time of year can be a little challenging, but cooler weather and a greater variety of seasonal produce is on the way.
The small restaurant is in an old space in the warehouse district, formerly inhabited by Latin Bites, next door to a tattoo parlor. (My friend was fascinated by how bright and clean the tattoo parlor appeared — we both expected something seedier.) The decor has been described as “flea market chic.” It’s comfortable and casual. See something you like — maybe a custom knife, leather apron, or clay dish? Oxheart has a “Friends” page on its website, where you can find the restaurant’s vendors and designers.
We chose the $79 Tasting Menu, which consisted of 7 courses and a bread course. Other options were the 4-course Early Autumn Menu and the Garden Menu, both of which were $49. A popular feature of the 30-seat restaurant is the BYOB option, with a $20 corkage fee, which our group of wine lovers appreciated. (Disclaimer: the menu can sometimes be challenging to pair wines with.)
On to the food! The first course was muscadine grapes with hoja santa jelly and bay leaf, raw almond, and mexican mint marigold. The peeled grapes had an interesting texture, almost gelatinous, and were quite fascinating.
Next up was an artfully arranged charred rosa bianca eggplant and quinoa, with smoked avocado, and pickled louisiana green eggplants. The individual components were all nice, and came together in a curious and satisfying way.
One of the things I really enjoyed about Oxheart is that Chef Yu delivers many of the dishes to the table personally, describes the preparation, and will patiently answer any questions, no matter how “look how much I know about food” they are.
The third course was a fish course — gulf warsaw grouper roasted over pecan wood, onion escabeche, three egg sauce, and caviar. The grouper was nice, but some in our group found the strongly pickled onions overwhelming.
The next course was my favorite, and consisted of a pancake with beef fat, fermented green garlic, and slowly cooked butternut squash. The squash was tender and sweet and caramelized and out of this world.
The bread course had a couple of chewy little rolls and an herbed butter. (I know it’s currently a popular phrase, but I don’t know that I’ll ever really think of bread and butter alone as a “course.”)
Guinea hen was next, gently poached white meat and braised dark meat, with summer squash, oregano, and soured cream. None of us had ever had guinea hen before, and I think we all agreed that the white meat tasted like turkey (note that I did not say it tasted like chicken). I used to see guinea hens roaming around when I lived in upstate NY, and they have the LOUDEST SCREAM I’ve ever heard come out of a bird — like a bunch of teenage girls at a One Direction concert. The minced dark meat inside the squash ribbons was crisped up with some of the skin, and it was delicious.
The last savory course was a stew of cultivated mushrooms, texas rice, and creamer peas with caramelized sauerkraut, long beans, and sweet peppers. (I really enjoyed this dish, so much so that I ate the whole thing before I realized I forgot to take a photo.)
Dessert was a sliver of peach bakewell tart with a peach frozen mousse. We were disappointed that we didn’t get to meet the bread and pastry chef, Chef Yu’s wife Karen Man, but Chef Yu told us that the dish washer had called in sick, and so the pastry chef had been relegated to K.P. Ah, the life of a small business owner.
Dining at Oxheart is a unique experience. The food is thoughtful — some of it outstanding, some of it curious — and definitely generates a lot of discussion. The restaurant has a quiet buzz, making it a nice setting for conversation with friends. The staff is extremely attentive and knowledgeable, without being pretentious. I think it is safe to say that a good time was had by all that evening.
UPDATE JULY 2014: We visited the restaurant again, and the following dishes were standouts:
— Texas sweet onions warmed in milk and butter, with “santa cruz” oregano and bread crumbs:
A bread course of pain au lait:
Gulf “almaco” jack smoked over mesquite, with collard greens, mustards, and pickles (the paper thin white vegetable draped over the fish is pickled cauliflower — amazing):