"The okra with the crème fraîche? Oh yeah, that's been on the menu forever."
That's what my friend told me when I described my favorite plate of the evening, a crescent of thin, delicate roasted and pickled okra pods -- the thinnest and least slimy I've ever encountered -- arranged on a bed of spiced crème fraîche and dotted with little pearls of smoked black garlic purée and garnished with a smattering of aromatic Thai holy basil.
This dish, found on the most recent iteration of the seasonally fluctuating garden menu at Oxheart, was such a treat that I found myself regretting that the courses are so small and dainty. I wanted a bowl of it, but because that was not an option, I ran my fingers through the meager smear of leftover crème fraîche, then licked them like a barbarian.
Still, I was surprised to hear that the okra had been on the menu longer than a season, if indeed my friend is correct. But in checking the menu on Oxheart's Web site, I saw that the summer offering (which is still posted) contains several of the same dishes as the autumn menu.
Because Oxheart relies on the freshest seasonal ingredients, I knew that if a dish lasted more than a couple of months that it wasn't necessarily a bad thing. It means it's still fresh. I was just surprised. In fact, much of my meal at Oxheart surprised me. I was surprised by how fast our waitress talked when explaining the dishes. I was surprised by the amazing little pretzel rolls during the bread course. And I was surprised to find that when I left Oxheart I was still hungry.
When I first started interviewing for this job, Katharine Shillcutt had just published her final review, and it was of Oxheart. From the moment I read it, I knew I had to get to this idiosyncratic little James Beard Award nominee in the warehouse district. By the time I finally got there, last week, I'm afraid my expectations were beyond high. I anticipated that I would be blown away by the concept, the food and the oft-mentioned tweezers, when, in fact, it was just a perfectly pleasant dining experience, nothing more, nothing less.
The early autumn menu and the garden menu both feature a holdover from summer: Two massive spinach leaves stuffed with potatoes pureed with "Thai aromatics," which tasted much like mint and basil. This was served on a plate splattered with lightly minted yogurt and dried kale. Before you can eat it, a waiter will come around with a bowl of roasted pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds to sprinkle on top; they give the dish a great and much needed crunch.
This appetizer-esque dish was good but not mind-blowing, which is what I'd come to expect from Oxheart after all the hype. Nearly mind-blowing, though, were the little soft pretzel balls made by chef Justin Yu's wife, Karen Man, and the accompanying mustard butter. One member of my party loved them so much that he deigned to ask the server for more. He was politely shot down.
By the time the okra course arrived, I was hungry again. My friends, who had chosen the early autumn menu, were treated to a beautiful filet of barrelfish, but some of them found it still raw in the middle and gave up on it when it failed to flake apart under the weight of their forks. I thought the flavor of the fish was strong and very appealing.
My third course consisted of cultivated mushroom and rice stew with long beans, and it was nearly too salty to eat. The mushrooms themselves were lovely, as were the sweet long beans, but the broth with rice and black beans seemed to have the salinity of the Dead Sea.
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While my friends munched on sous vide rabbit, I began looking forward to dessert, which, to be perfectly honest, is usually one of my favorite parts of the meal. The chocolate layer cake was not what I was expecting, though. It had a layer of rosemary-infused dark chocolate on top of a layer of rosemary-infused chocolate mousse, under which was a layer of almond cake, then a layer of Kieffer pear purée, followed by another layer of almond cake. It was lovely, to be sure, but none of us could get past the overwhelming rosemary flavor long enough to really enjoy the delicate, almost frozen pear or the smooth-as-silk mousse.
I get what Oxheart is doing, and I get why it was so groundbreaking when it first opened. And I really do appreciate the place. I can think of few other restaurants in Houston where such attention is paid to vegetables -- and unique ones at that -- and where so much time and effort are put into every detail of the preparation and the plating. To the talented chefs there, I say keep up the good work and use less salt.
Still, I feel like I might be getting to a point where I'm over loving the idea behind the food more than I love the food. Perhaps I'm already jaded, only three months into my job, but I can't help thinking that I want to be wowed by flavors, not by revolutionary concepts.
And I don't want to come home after a meal and eat a bowl of Texans Tackle Crackle ice cream before I go to bed. Like I said, I was hungry.