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Oxheart: Challenging the Idea of What Dinner Can Be

Surviving its critics' predictions, this restaurant continues to thrive in Houston, folllowing a most atypical path to attract the city's diners.

"You've got to meet this guy," my friend Jenny Wang told me as she drove me toward the Lake House in Discovery Green five years ago. "He's going to do amazing things." She introduced me to Justin Yu for the first time that day, and I remember thinking of the Lake House line cook: This guy is flipping burgers in a park. What's happening here?

I told Yu that the last time I saw him, which was as he was doling a cream spoonful of three-egg sauce onto a piece of pecan-smoked tuna on my plate a couple of weeks ago at dinner. He laughed. Neither of us could believe it had been that long, although Yu's talent has been percolating for far longer than that.

That visit to the Lake House was before Yu's stint at the all-vegetable, all-the-time Napa Valley restaurant Ubuntu, before his journeys through Europe with wife Karen, staging and eating their way across the continent. This was before the two ate at Relae, the Copenhagen-based restaurant that provided the majority of the inspiration they absorbed with its stripped-down dining room and menu of dishes like "milk, kelp and caramel."

Husband-and-wife team Karen Man and Justin Yu want to challenge your palate at Oxheart.
Troy Fields
Husband-and-wife team Karen Man and Justin Yu want to challenge your palate at Oxheart.

Location Info

Map

Oxheart

1302 Nance St.
Houston, TX 77002

Category: Restaurant > New American

Region: Downtown/ Midtown

Details

Hours: Thursday to Monday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.
Garden menu: $49
Spring menu: $49
Tasting menu: $79



View More:

Slideshow: Dinner As An Experience: Behind The Scenes At Oxheart



Although Yu and Man have always had their supporters in Houston — especially those who attended the pop-up dinner series that Yu and his friends threw while ramping up to Oxheart's opening — there was much discussion over whether or not such a delicate little operation as theirs would be sustainable in our city. Small dishes, eccentric ingredients, unusual preparations, mostly vegetables, tasting menus only — this was not the Houston restaurant model of success.

Yet here we all are, just over a year later, and Oxheart has proved its critics wrong. While it's not everyone's cup of tea, people do pack the small space out nightly for Yu and Man's creations: heirloom potatoes roasted with vegetable ash over a vividly green sofrito of Swiss chard stems; a salad of torn brassicas leaves and the plant's tartly pickled stems with shreds of chrysanthemum and a dressing of goat's whey and herbed oils; a steamed cake of "chiogga" beets, chocolate namelaka and beet crème for dessert.

To spend time addressing the way these dishes taste seems almost fruitless. They're unique, to a number, and not easily translated to ink and paper. They're incredibly well-balanced in unexpected ways, like figuring out how much chocolate cake it will take to balance out the sour smack of green tomato jam below, or how many paper-thin slices of hakurei turnips it will take to bind together rabbit and green garlic ash in a tight little roll.

Describing the flavors that Oxheart evokes feels as pointless as describing a sunrise when you could just drag a person out of bed and have them witness the rampant, creeping dawn for themselves. Oxheart is not prohibitively expensive — it's $50 for a four-course meal, which is $50 you can just as easily spend at a lesser restaurant in an evening — and begs to be experienced on your own terms, not going by someone else's descriptions of dishes he's likely never encountered before nor will he ever again.

There's something intensely personal about watching a chef and his batterie make each dish in your meal, serve it to you themselves and explain all of the ingredients in plain, pared-down language. You never feel as if you're in a temple of fine dining at Oxheart, but rather in Yu and Man's own kitchen. You get your own silverware and napkins from the drawers that are cleverly built into your table. A record player lazily spins LPs as it would at someone's dinner party. Everyone around you is in jeans — even the servers — as if to gently encourage anyone still wary of Oxheart's mission: See? Art doesn't have to be pretentious!

And what Oxheart is making is as much art as it is food. It's art that reflects the creator's passions and influences, from California to Copenhagen to the Gulf Coast. Art that speaks to the creator's desire to see a tidal change in the way that people view food. Art that challenges its consumers, as all good art should.

Just like Houston, Oxheart isn't the destination for everyone. But for those open-minded enough to visit, it's a treasure hiding in plain sight, waiting to be explored and waiting to blow you away.

katharine.shilcutt@houstonpress.com

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