A new and brave culinary language at Oxheart in Houston

sunchokes recipe houstonAbove: “roasted and charred sunchokes with salted cream, jasmine tea, honey, and Meyer lemon.”

Last night, I finally made it to Oxheart in Houston, one of the most talked about and lauded restaurants in the city.

And my retard wasn’t just due to my busy travel schedule: Oxheart is a small restaurant with roughly 30 seats and because of its overwhelming popularity among Houstonians and visitors, it’s extremely challenging to get a table there.

japanese roots recipe houstonAbove: “Japanese roots and a soffritto of dried gulf shellfish, with steamed crawfish, and fragrant herbs.”

If you’re reading this it’s more likely than not that you don’t need me to tell how wonderful owner/chef Justin Yu’s cooking is. He began racking up national accolades and media attention as soon as he opened the restaurant three years ago or so.

And two years ago, Pete Wells gave the restaurant a glowing review in the Times.

Justin, wrote Wells in his envoy, is one of the chefs who is “helping to make [Houston] into one of the country’s most exciting places to eat.”

And Justin, his kitchen staff, and his waitstaff delivered on every level.

gerard duplessisAbove: a brilliant pairing for the gulf shellfish and crawfish (previous photo), recommended by our waiter and authored by Justin Vann, one of the city’s leading wine professionals.

Scores of other writers — local and beyond — have written about the originality and vibrancy of Justin’s locavorism and his boundless world view. It seemed that every dish spoke to his approach in fusing readily available wholesome ingredients with cosmopolitan cooking techniques and combinations. The smoked pork with porc thailande (below), for example, was brilliant.

smoked porkAbove: “lightly smoked Red Wattle pig warmed in pork fat, with porc thailande, turnips, and fermented mizuna.

But the thing that really turned me on about his restaurant was the utter absence of affectation.

The staff was so polite and so gentle in explaining the complicated and unusual dishes. They never talked down to our table nor did they make us feel the burden of privilege (there is no à la carte dining there but the prix fixe was very reasonable at $74 per person).

Their attitude was so refreshing: in a world where tongue-piercings and haughtiness seem to go hand-in-hand with haute cuisine, the Oxheart staff made us feel at ease and comfortable. I was really impressed by this.

The other thing that I loved was the wholesomeness and transparency of flavor in Justin’s dishes.

In so many “high-concept” restaurants like this, chefs seem to tend to transform the flavors of the ingredients. On one level Justin’s cooking is extremely complicated with combinations that would seemingly drag the diner in multiple directions (even geographically).

But Justin’s food championed the materia prima without masking or morphing it. I loved that.

In the same way that a great poet forges a new language by combining the words in the dictionary in a unique and newly meaningful way, Justin has — in my view — forged a new and unique culinary parlance.

But you didn’t need me to tell you that. It just took me a little longer than most to get to the party…

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