Oxheart: Challenging the Idea of What Dinner Can Be
Five days a week, five and a half short hours each day, chef Justin Yu and his team at Oxheart spring to life like a clock that's striking noon. Watching Yu and his corps of sous chefs — each bent at the waist over stainless-steel prep tables, noses inches from their plates and tweezers in hand — is like watching the inner workings of Big Ben. Some cooks perform a loosely choreographed ballet when they work, turning quick petits fouettés around each other as they move from one station to the next and dashing madly around in triple runs. Not at Oxheart.
Here, everything is as precisely timed as clockwork, from the succession of dishes that marches across your table with the elegance of a second hand sweeping swiftly across the face of a watch to the neat, clean assembly line that constructs each dish with the patience and concentration of a watchmaker. There are only 30 seats at the tiny restaurant, and only 11 of them overlook the matchbox-size open kitchen. These 11 seats afford you as much theater as they do a meal, and you're encouraged to watch.
This encouragement is one of the first signs that you're not in for a typical meal at Oxheart, but you probably already knew that. Another sign is the months-long waiting list to get one of those 30 seats. Still another sign is all the national press that Oxheart has received since it opened in the spring of 2012, from a James Beard Award semifinalist nod for Best New Restaurant of 2013 to a recent full-on restaurant review from The New York Times, in which food critic Pete Wells called it "one of the growing number of places around the country that are rearranging our notions of what fine dining means."
You don't come to Oxheart for a steak dinner and a nice bottle of Cab. You come for an experience — and only you can determine whether or not that experience is ultimately worth it. This is what Wells means when he talks about Oxheart challenging your idea of what dinner can be.
Oxheart challenges you from the very first course, whether it be an opening dish of raw and confit tomatoes — perhaps five on your handmade ceramic plate — forming a delicate half-circle of grana padano cheese that's been emulsified into a foam, or a fawn-colored soup of sunflower seeds that are aggressively musky and earthy and only really tempered by the dry, subtly sweet Sercial Madeira from Portugal that's poured alongside it by your hyper-attentive server, one of the many intriguing bottles you'll probably find in Houston only at Oxheart.
At Oxheart, you have to go all in. You can't just experiment with a dish or two to see if you like Yu's main courses or the unusual bread and dessert courses from his wife, pastry chef Karen Man. You order from one of three tasting menus: a four-course Garden Menu that features all produce-based dishes, a four-course Spring Menu that introduces a couple of meat or fish dishes, or a seven-course tasting menu that features a little of everything. You can add wine pairings to all three tasting menus, although your entire table doesn't have to order the same menu.
This is just one of several ways in which Oxheart leans to the far more casual side of the fine-dining spectrum. There's also the cost, which is extremely reasonable given the talent and ingredients — all of which are painstakingly sourced by Yu and his team — and the lack of other fancy trappings like valet parking or a dress code.
There's also the neighborhood itself: the ragged Warehouse District on the north end of downtown, which features commercial loading docks and converted lofts side by side. The area encourages grungy DIY music venues and gallery spaces like the House of Creeps and — directly across the street from Oxheart — the Doctor's Office, where modern-day hippies climb the oak trees to paint their branches while hanging handwritten signs in front of their private parking lot that read: DO NOT FUCKING PARK HERE. There's the colorful tattoo studio next door (which actually specializes in black-and-white tattoos), and the equally colorful Last Concert Cafe down the block, which has occupied its rickety red-and-white house since 1949. There's the skyline of Houston behind you and the rush of traffic from the East Freeway only 100 yards away from Oxheart's front door.
All of these things combine to make Oxheart not simply one of the best restaurants in the city, but also one of the most distinctly Houstonian.
It challenges people — both within and without — to reconsider the way they view our rapidly growing city, or simply the way they view sunflower seeds or tomatoes. It takes all comers with an egalitarian attitude, and offers civility and culture in an unexpected setting. It's stubbornly idiosyncratic and committed to a vision all its own. There's sprawl here, too, but in the extended rhythm of a seven-course meal instead of the physical space itself, which is all whitewashed walls and tall, airy ceilings.
It's weird and wild and wonderful, and although it doesn't always work — sometimes the kitchen is too intently focused on a dish for anyone to realize your wine glass has been sitting empty; maybe you don't want to spend three hours intently focusing on your food; perhaps you aren't interested in eating what looks like a handful of lawn-mower cast-offs or anything made into a foam; and, y'know, those 11 tall seats at the bar can be pretty uncomfortable for shorter people — you'll never come away bored.
"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."
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.
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