Over the next three months, Beard Award-winning chef Justin Yu will open a brand-new Heights-based bar Better Luck Tomorrow with cocktail maven Bobby Heugel, followed by his anticipated revamp of Oxheart, transforming it from an exclusive but unassuming tasting-menu restaurant that has garnered national critical acclaim and landed the young chef a JBFA in 2016 into an eatery that will serve à la carte menu items from a kitchen helmed by chef de cuisine Jason White, with little else known about the details.
It’s a huge departure for Yu and Oxheart, which New York Times critic Pete Wells referred to as "one of the growing number of places around the country that are rearranging our notions of what fine dining means" back in 2013, calling it "an example of the growing ambition of the Houston dining scene." After five years of business, the restaurant known for ditching traditional ideals of fine dining will trade in its progressive approach— unfussy vibes, locally crafted wares, hyper-local ingredients and plated vegetables that left both diners and critics in awe or sometimes not — for its mystery incarnation. What is known: The team will address the restaurant's awkward kitchen and gussy up the dining area, and the restaurant's yet-to-be-revealed name, as Allison Cook has promised, is "both amusing and decidedly different in tone."
“It sounds kind of weird," Justin Yu recently told the Houston Press via phone call. "But I’m entering a new phase of life. I’m so grateful to be able to say I closed Oxheart on my own terms.” Those aren't the typical words you’d hear out of a chef’s mouth, especially one of Yu's caliber, but then again, Yu isn’t exactly a typical chef.
“I get bored easily,” he admits. "But now I'm no longer chained to a stove. I get to move around. I have more to offer the city."
How that will factor into Better Luck Tomorrow is anyone’s guess. To watch a chef trade in a tasting restaurant for a bar is pretty much unheard of, but Yu looks at this move as a long time coming.
“I think I was Bobby’s first regular. I was a cook at this place 17. I was never a big drinker, but I was always interested in what Bobby was doing at Beaver’s.”
As for the breadth of his upcoming expansion, “The least control over all this is the timing. I didn’t think I’d be opening two places at the same time, but I have a lot of people around me that I trust. We’re not promoting people from the outside…Matt [Boeson] worked with us at Oxheart. Justin [Vann] is doing the wine. I want it calculated. I want to open things for the sake of those who deserve a chance, and doing right by our investors and people.”
At BLT, Yu may be on the line regularly, at first anyways, and plans to work on “the new Oxheart stuff,” as he calls it, during the day. He says he’s still learning how to manage it all.
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He looks at the BLT menu not as his own, but as a collaborative effort with chef de cuisine Matt Boeson, who took over a spot in the Oxheart kitchen during the last several months of operation. There, Yu and Boeson would develop dishes for BLT and go back and forth on exactly what the bar food would entail. “To give you an example, Boeson came up with this warm snap pea dish. We’re excited to get to do those things. Snap peas will be in season when we open, and we want to support our farmers and have them support us too.”
Most of the dishes on the menu will be seasonal, except one — The Party Melt — a patty melt with a very thin, caramelized burger that is “almost like a crunchy beef sandwich.” Yu is also toying with the idea of always having a pancake of some form at BLT, be it a Chinese-style pancake, a savory buttermilk version with shrimp or a mung bean pancake with Indian spices. The menu will consist of ten to 12 items that won’t cover your typical bar food notes.
“In terms of food, especially bar food, my tastes aren’t well represented in Houston," Yu says. "I like lighter food, simple food. You’ll find more of that at BLT. There will be a level of surprise. We’re not a restaurant. We’re 100 percent a bar,” just a bar where “food is a major part of the conversation" and, they hope, affordable. "I really don't want to break the $20 barrier."
BLT is projected to open in late April. The new Oxheart will open by summer.