Monday, February 24, 2014

Oxheart: A Blueprint for the Modern Restaurant

The diners next to us receive their first course, a visually stunning dish whose centerpiece is a custard that emits the licorice bouquet of fennel. Ultra-talented (and now two-time James Beard Award semi-finalist) Chef Justin Yu explains the dish while pouring what he describes as a citrus consomm√© around the outside of the custard. My wife and I give it a sideways glance so as not to intrude on the other diners’ privacy, what little there may be in the close quarters of the Oxheart dining room. Having chosen the winter menu on this visit, this is not a course we will receive but of course are curious nonetheless. Why am I discussing another person’s food? Well, because my party had yet to receive our first course. The first wine pairing had been poured, a prosecco that I’d later opine did not enhance our first course, but this realization would not come for some time. As our dining neighbors received their second course, as did the diners next to them, we sensed something had gone awry. No sooner had we quietly voiced this to each other when one of Oxheart’s two incredibly gifted servers came to us and apologetically explained, “We mistakenly gave your first course to another party. Please feel free to finish your wine and we’ll top you off and have your first course out promptly.” Alas, after so many critical ravings (not to mention my own positive experiences), a chink in the armor! Other than one overly salty mushroom stew on a previous visit, the restaurant had been flawless for me.

Oxheart has received many an accolade in its short existence, both locally and nationally. There seems to be a new school “hipster culture” that tends to turn on things once they gain recognition. This thinking, which I once thought was exclusive to the music community’s outrage from the “Dylan went electric? Corporate lackey!” days of the 70’s through to the “Metallica cut their hair? Sellouts!” proclamations of the 90’s, has recently permeated the Houston food scene. Part of me thinks it is a badge of honor, proving that our city has arrived as a culinary heavyweight. But I’m not here to be the contrarian, to rage against the popularity of Oxheart. I’m too old and too lazy to be a hipster. Plus, I live in the suburbs and thrift stores are far away. I began this post with the service hiccup not to chastise Chef Yu’s restaurant, but to praise it. The rest of the night was simple proof that the team Justin Yu and Karen Man have assembled simply get it. The foodservice industry is rife with ups and downs and turnover, both in the front and back of the house. Oxheart itself had its sommelier, the incomparable Justin Vann, depart for a new venture last year. But to me, the mark of a truly special dining experience, other than of course the food, is the way a restaurant treats its patrons. Particularly when something goes wrong.

The savory courses (clockwise from top left): Carrot dish, bread course, Beef dish with the divine sausage, Swordfish with shaved pickled cauliflower and rolled cabbage.

Following the mix up that started the evening, the rest of the meal ran smoothly. We received our first course, a carrot dish presented in the chef’s signature “stem-to-tip” philosophy towards vegetables. The dish as a whole worked, with purple carrots cooked in an onion bouillon delightfully balanced with thinly sliced raw carrots and crunchy carrot top fritters. A bright green dill puree, intensely concentrated in flavor, provided balance with the sweetness of the carrots. While it may have lacked some of the wow factor I’d grown accustomed to from previous visits, it was a good start to the meal. The effervescence of the aforementioned prosecco provided a nice contrast to the smooth quality of the dish, but the dry finish distracted from the flavors. Of course this is the opinion of a confessed wine novice, so your experience may be different.

Next up was the bread course, which my wife and I have come to anticipate like children on Christmas morning. What will they have for us this time? English muffins served with herbed lard on our first visit are still a culinary moment often discussed in our household. The bread on this night was a sourdough roll with housemade butter. It had the perfect amount of salt and did not disappoint, though the muffins still come to me in dreams.

The fish courses at Oxheart are always memorable, as the kitchen seems to know as well as any when enough is enough and doesn’t overcrowd your palate with competing flavors and textures. This night was no different. A wonderful swordfish was smoked and touched with just enough cane syrup to provide some sweetness to the meaty fish. As is often the case with Oxheart, the vegetables on the plate elevated the dish to another level. Cabbage, carefully rolled with mustard, was a brilliant touch that took this course from pleasing to memorable. Thin slices of pickled cauliflower provided the perfect amount of acid.

I was curious to see what Chef Yu would do with red meat, as it is not normally the focal point of an Oxheart meal. While the roast sirloin was cooked to a beautiful medium rare, it lacked the sear a converted Texan has grown accustomed to. The sausage, however, was a revelation. A beautiful combination of beef and beets, it was wonderfully textured and had a flavor I’ll be comparing other sausage to for a long time to come. There was a sauce of beef stock and dried offal powder that provided a wonderful salty punch to the dish that was offset with a beet puree. All components were in perfect harmony. The amount of thought that goes into each dish on the menu is undeniable.

The dessert course was a chocolate lover’s paradise of rich chocolate mousse with a bit of currants laced into the dish that was a welcome break from the intensity of the chocolate. There was an olive oil ganache that lightened the dish and made it sing. It was what came next, though, that helps turn a meal into memory.

As we ordered coffee, we were informed that the kitchen would like to bring us another dessert that Chef Man had been contemplating adding to the menu. It was a honey cake with sliced carrots, candied pecans, and whipped cream cheese. My wife, a chocolate fanatic, claimed this as the best dessert she had ever had from Oxheart. I am inclined to agree. It was paired with a fortified muscadelle that acted almost as a molasses to wake you up when the airy sweetness of the honey cake and cream cheese put you at ease.


Chocolate mousse on the left, honey cake dessert with whipped cream cheese on the right.

At the end of the meal, what stuck in my head for days and ultimately lead to me writing this, was how we were treated at Oxheart. The thing that sets this restaurant apart is the approach they take to service. Every diner is treated like they mean something, that their presence in the restaurant is appreciated by each staff member they encounter. It sounds simple, but is so rarely achieved. Make no mistake; this is not an accident. This is an attitude that is put forth from the top down. There is an aura of respect that permeates from chefs to servers to patrons that makes Oxheart such a treasure. My wife, as she so often does, said it best: “It says something that we’ve spent fifteen minutes discussing the meal, and the mess up on the first course is the tenth thing we talked about.” So many restaurants could learn a lesson with that. And no, to the cynics out there, my opinion was not swayed by a “free glass of wine and dessert.” It was the genuine care, service and commitment to a pleasant evening that the staff at Oxheart provided that made this and every meal I’ve had there an experience to be remembered.  In an era where diners pay for things that were once free (bread), wait an exuberant amount of time for tables (ahem, Coltivare – I do love you though), and have an increasing number of options to spend their respective dining allotments, things like this stand out. To have a staff as knowledgeable, friendly, and committed as the crew at Oxheart is to creating an atmosphere of home is the best compliment I can pay their talented staff.

While the Houston dining culture continues to evolve, and places like Oxheart and The Pass help pull us out of the quantity equals quality mentality that still exists in many Houston diners, I hope that more people realize how special it is to have a restaurant that cares.

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