"Those are the best vegetables I ever ate," declared the gentleman one table over at Oxheart on Saturday night."
"And I've been trying to get him to eat vegetables for 38 years," added his wife wryly.
The dish that had turned this fellow's head was a light, complex dance of greens and grains that pinwheeled across the plate in painterly fashion. The quinoa tasted particularly fresh and springlike in its tart dressing. Puffed red wheat and a grain I didn't quite catch added little pops of texture.
The Japanese okame spinach that was the dish's reason for being was soft and crisp and bitter and sweet and darkly green, the essence of a late-Houston winter on the verge of a summery spring. It had been harvested (surely just 20 minutes ago) at the Emile Street Gardens just a quick jog away from this corner of Nance Street, northeast of downtown. An herbal emulsion and a whisper of white-miso sauce added to this quiet conversation.
And the thing was, the more I ate of this first dish set before me at chef Justin Yu's three-day-old restaurant, the more I liked it. I swear that the last bite was even better than the first, which as any dedicated diner will tell you is a great rarity.
Just as great a rarity is an American restaurant that does not depend on big hunks of protein to make its case. That, to me, is Oxheart's daring and allure right out of the gate. From what I can tell, the gamble to put glorious local produce front and center is going to work. I'm already getting the sense that Oxheart will be a destination restaurant for people from other parts of the country who are serious about food.
Dare I say it? Oxheart feels like kind of a big deal.
I was surprised to find myself at a three-day old restaurant, if the truth be known. It's too soon to judge much at such an early stage, and normally I'd stay away until things settled out. But friends whose second baby is due later this week had wanted one last evening out, and they wanted it at Oxheart. So here we were: eating highly accomplished food in a fresh, lovely setting that had come together quickly.
Tall sweeps of muslin draped the windows; the blocky longleaf pine tables echoed the old pink brick walls; and an airy grid of copper dangled tubelike Edison bulbs from the high ceiling. We pulled out the drawer hidden in our table and served ourself with rolled up napkins and flatware, to be replenished as we chose (or not) while our four-course tasting menus progressed.
The rhythms of the meal were nicely paced through several courses, but as the sun sank over downtown (those views are stupendous) and the place filled up, the kitchen got backlogged, and there was a 30-minute gap between our final courses. That's the sort of thing that gets worked out as a team coheres.
I tasted a scrambled egg dish with yeast that I didn't much care for; and I thought that a pleasant-enough mosaic of tat soi and charred lettuce hearts hiding soft shreds of black-drum head, done confit style, seemed to lack focus, or perhaps enough green tomato relish to hit lift-off.
In an otherwise fetching dessert, I encountered a hazelnut that had gone distressingly stale. That's the sum total of my quibbles, and they evaporate when set next to the meticulous brilliance of the best dishes.
Those bright green pods of Amish peas and grown by David Cater of Utility Research Farms, for instance: their leaves tendriled about them, they were set raw against a pool of creme fraiche seasoned with mullet roe smoked and cured by Yu into a version of Gulf Coast bottarga. Strong mushroom "tea" poured from an earthen pot was the final element of a clean, provocative dish I'll be thinking about for days. Make that weeks.
I greeted the little starburst-scored pretzel rolls baked by Karen Man, Yu's wife and co-owner, as if they were old friends. I had met them at one of the couple's pop-up dinners last year, and I was glad to see their escort of jumpy mustard butter again, too.
I marveled over the eloquent simplicity of watermelon radishes warmed in butter and arranged into a radiant spring mosaic of pink and white and green, with pale sprigs of edible roots and tiny blossoms adding an ethereal lightness. (I'm already wondering if this will turn out to be the most beautiful plate of food I see this year.)
Rosy wedges of ox heart braised in beef fat wowed me with their gently gamy twinge and beefy density. Yu is hardly all vegetables all the time, and here expertly done meat was the focus, with thin, beef-fat-braised shards of sunchoke in a supporting role. The galvanizing force? A cache of sharp mostarda made from pickled local strawberries, which are nearing the end of their Gulf Coast season.
Damn, it was good. The ox heart vied with those raw Amish peas as my dish of the night. We finished by sampling each others' desserts: one from the four-course all vegetable Garden Menu, another from the meat-and-fish-included Late Winter Menu.
An elegant rectangle of heirloom carrot cake sported an intriguing central streak of Delfina cilantro, and its jewel-like custard top shone as brightly as aspic, paved with a scatter of sunflower seeds. Interesting stuff.
A cloud of caramelized white chocolate (infused, undetectably, with barley) was electrified by the tart spark of kumquat and a cobwebby tuile, the kind of fruit-driven dessert that is easy for me to love.
So will this restaurant be, if the fascinating food they put out only three days into their run is an indication. I'm just happy I'll get to go along for the ever-changing ride as the seasons and the menus change.
Please note that Oxheart has been booked pretty much to capacity, so you'll have to reserve, and it's BYOB until the wine and beer license arrives.
As I drove off, I looked back at the outdoor deck where diners waiting for tables had congregated, sipping wine and talking with the sparkling skyline of downtown spread out before them, from an angle Houstonians rarely see.
The restaurant looked like it belonged there, and nowhere else, much like its clean-tasting, disciplined food.
Oxheart: 1302 Nance St., 832-830-8592. Dinner only; 5:30 p.m.—10 p.m. Thursday, Sunday & Monday and 5:30 p.m.—10:30 p.m. Friday & Saturday. Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays.