Pig's Blood, Vegetables and the Perfect Family Meal at Oxheart

Dining out with children is an exercise in situational awareness. Each experience is unique, with different variables leading to different possible outcomes, DEFCON-like in their escalating threat levels. Keen observation, forward planning and prior experience are critical in determining the proper strategy. Here at DEFCON Dining, we do the grunt work for you. It ain't always pretty.

I made my elder daughter cry within five minutes of sitting down to dinner at Oxheart. We'd been through all the usual discussions about etiquette and attitude, and were riding high on the success of a recent dinner at Foreign & Domestic in Austin. We were ready for this one. Then, I mentioned the blood paintings.

Just inside the restaurant's front door hangs a series of canvases sparingly decorated with semi-stylized images of vegetables in bright shades of crimson. Carrots, peas, beets, all dipped and drawn in pig's blood. They're lovely and interesting, and they captivated my children's interest immediately.

We'd already been discussing the origin and meaning of Oxheart's name, and it seemed appropriate to explain the artwork's connection to the restaurant's carnal/vegetal themes. As I was describing how the vegetables had been cut and dragged through the blood, used as stamps to create their own images and to further reinforce the simultaneous duality and continuum of the restaurant's character, my daughter gently cupped her face in her hands, hiding the hot but silent tears that had begun sliding down her cheeks.

She's a sure carnivore, but a sensitive one, and she was weeping for the pigs whose lives had been given, whose blood had been spilt for those canvases. Of course, that didn't stop her from eating her share of tête de cochon later that evening. I think there's something beautiful and somehow appropriate about that.

We'd been mulling the thought of Oxheart over in our heads for months. The kids had tried Chef Justin Yu's food on several occasions, and we'd had positive experiences each time. They'd met the Chef, as well as Sommelier Justin Vann; they thought it was funny that a bunch of grown men were so obsessed with ceramic cats.

My concerns were two-fold: the expected length of the meal, and the expectation of a few challenging dishes. My own recent forays into creative vegetable cookery did not instill confidence in their ability to appreciate Yu's thoughtful treatments of okra and peas, their howls of "It's just a bowl of green stuff!" ringing sourly in my ears. The thought of having to deal with those complaints over the course of an hours-long meal, bowls pushed roughly away with childish contempt, was somewhat terrifying.

To be honest, there was a third concern, but one which flowed inexorably from the first two: I didn't want to waste the money. While the idea of "value" is a somewhat fluid one, ebbing with means and flowing with priorities, I don't think anyone can reasonably argue that Oxheart is an inexpensive restaurant. Particularly when you're considering taking kids along for the ride, ones whose ages don't allow for a few nibbles off of mom and dad's plates, with a follow up PB&J when you get back home. If they didn't like it, I was out a big chunk of change for a somewhat miserable experience, the whole thing marred by whining at the best and a hasty departure at worst.

In an effort to skew the odds in my favor on all three, I made a few requests when I booked our reservation, and the restaurant was kind enough to oblige.

First, I asked if it would be acceptable to order one tasting menu each for myself and my wife, with one for the kids to split. I knew there was no way they would each eat a full seven (or even four) courses, and the expense seemed ridiculous regardless. I wanted to make sure that would be acceptable to the restaurant, though, as I know that space there is limited, and didn't want to create a problem by taking up two seats for one charge. Oxheat obliged my request.

The second was a request of Justin Vann, whose various non-alcoholic cocktails we'd enjoyed previously, along with our kids. I figured a fancy drink, made just for them, would add to the grown-up-coolness of the whole experience, and buy a little bit more cooperation. I was right.

When Vann brought the girls' glasses over, ceremoniously describing the "Fentiman's imported lemonade, green tomato water and a single drop of mint bitters," the kids eyes grew wide. They were entranced as he gently coaxed a single drop of bitters from its bottle, and they grinned broadly as they saw it break the surface of their drinks, spreading and disappearing in an instant.

The older one looked up, surveying the scene. My wife and I had not yet received our first wine pairings. "We have cocktails, and you guys don't!" she announced, a bit of wonder and a hint of gloating in her voice. I immediately snatched hers and took a drink; perspective is an important lesson for a kid.

The Green Tomato Shandy, as it was dubbed, was delicious. Light, barely sweet, and refreshing, it had a pleasantly vegetal character and a somewhat bracing acidity. It was a fitting beverage, I think and the girls liked it nearly as much as I did.

As our first courses came, so began the comedy of errors that comes when you bring kids to a restaurant that invites you to set your own silverware. This wonderfully casual concept is a dangerous trap for children. They vacillated somewhat wildly between trying to replace forks and spoons with every course, and practically tackling the waitstaff to retrieve unintentionally relinquished flatware. They found themselves very amusing. Thankfully, so did the good folks at Oxheart.

Our first courses arrived, a salad of sorts for the ladies, comprised of pickled muscadine grapes accented with fig leaf (oil, I believe), oregano buds, and meyer lemon. It was light and refreshing, as well, with an herbal and floral pop from the oregano that added depth and focus to the whole affair. It was a lovely first course, and well received by everyone at the table, save for the little one.

For her, my dish of peaches and figs, pickled and dried into various depths of flavor and ranges of texture, accompanied by a sort of rye granola, creme fraiche, and thyme, was a better fit. Hers is a soul devoted to breakfast, and this dish struck a chord. Much more savory than it sounds, the dish resonated with malty, earthy flavors. The aromatic essences of peach and fig predominated its fruit elements, with brisk swipes of creme fraiche adding highlight. She ate fully two-thirds of my plate. I was glad to share it.

I was also glad at the restaurant's recommendation that we order two full tastings, and one four course "Garden Menu." Not only did it reduce the total cost while allowing us to sample (I believe) everything on the menu, but it served to smooth over the few points in the meal where the kids didn't like what they were offered.

Case in point, the dish of smoked then oil poached blackfin tuna, with a swipe of chickpea puree. In particular, the kids were not overly fond of the garnishes: oil-poached shrimp, a sort of salsa of confited tomatoes and dried shrimp, and a thinly sliced beans. The fish was too smoky for them (it was just forceful enough to peek over the top of the fish's somewhat assertive nature), the "tomato stuff" too funky (it was, indeed, heady, but in a delightful way, the slight funk of the shrimp playing well against the saturated, slightly sweet-tart character of the condiment), and the shrimp mushy. I actually have to concede the point on this one, though it was only a minor flaw. I ate nearly two full portions, both of my children's split plates, and most of my wife's.

It only pained me a little to offer my plate of roasted squash with vadouvan, squash blossom soubise, and mint in exchange for all of the tuna. I love that dish, have had it before in a couple of different forms, and have (sort of) tried to replicate it at home. I'm pretty sure you're all getting sick of me going on about it, but I'm pretty sure I'll never get tired of eating it. There's a reason it survived Yu's pop-ups, and seems to have earned a permanent, though seasonally varied, spot on his menu.

The fanciful spires of an okra dish pleased all parties, the adults savoring the interplay between earthy and sweet, tart and herbal flavors. The children took their own routes to happiness, the older one finishing her plate and wiping her fingers through the last pools of sweet corn pudding before she had the chance to ask what anything was. The younger one focused obsessively on that same pudding, leaving the rest of us free to cherry pick our favorite elements. I particularly enjoyed the pickled okra seeds and roasted grains, two ideas that I've been playing with in various iterations since.

The night's most successful dishes were no surprise to me, particularly given the audience: potatoes and dessert. The potatoes -- crisped to an almost shattering exterior, impossibly creamy and earthy-sweet on the inside -- were truly phenomenal. It's a little bit difficult, in general, to talk about Oxheart and what it does particularly well without waxing poetic, ridiculously purple prose fairly dripping from your lips. I'm sure this will be met with some degree of derision, but even the kids agreed that the success of that particular dish was how much it was itself, when they were done literally gasping with pleasure.

A puree of chard sheltering the potatoes was earthy, bright, barely tart and just bitter enough to take note of that fact. That verdant pool both reinforced and offset the potatoes, whose roasted savor was itself scored by the expanding nature of a dusting of vegetable ash. Every bite was like a concentrated study in what a potato can be, never anything else, but more than whatever you're thinking. The dish was utterly delicious, utterly elemental, and utterly simple. Of course, "simplicity" is a coy mistress, often concealing a fractal-like complexity. Such was the case with those potatoes, and a large part of why they were so arresting.

Our desserts were equally arresting . A simple, short-crusted tart of light custard and tomatoes was elegant in its simplicity. Barely sweet, the tomato flavor both ethereally light and ringingly clear, it was restrained and delicate, with a gentle perfume of thyme, offering yet another of those unexpected herbal lifts that I find so compelling in Yu and company's food.

The kids began musing about a dinner compiled entirely from Baker Karen Mann's creations, recalling the intermezzo bread course they'd marveled over. A whole loaf of rich and gentle brioche, in pull-apart format, hit the table somewhere around course three, and the kids' eyes widened. Then, they each got their plate, a smear of good butter knifed across it, and they could hardly restrain their excitement. They're fans of the simple things, and bread and butter are king. In hindsight, that bread alone would have won them over. I'd known it was coming, but had kept it up my sleeve. It's good to have an Ace, just in case. It turns out I didn't need it, but was glad of it, anyway.

My goal in DEFCON Dining is not merely to survive dinner, but to teach my kids how to enjoy it. At its best, a meal is not just a series of tasty things to eat, but a shared experience, an opportunity for conversation, and an expansion of horizons. This meal hit all of those nails square on their heads, nearly perfect in all the ways it could have been. Even those early tears were, to me, a meaningful part of the experience, and one I wouldn't give back. I don't know if I'll ever take my kids to Oxheart again, but I'm very much glad I took them once.

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Nicholas L. Hall is a husband and father who earns his keep playing a video game that controls the U.S. power grid. He also writes for the Houston Press about food, booze and music, in an attempt to keep the demons at bay. When he's not busy keeping your lights on, he can usually be found making various messes in the kitchen, with apologies to his wife.
Contact: Nicholas L. Hall