I was wondering whether I'd see a counter in the much-anticipated new Oxheart when I poked my head in earlier this week--I was hoping for one, in fact--and there it was. In skeleton form, anyway: a squared U-shape metal grid in front of the kitchen, awaiting its longleaf-pine tabletop and built-in utensil boxes, with rustic-industrial stools soon to be filled with diners on the March 15 opening day.
Chef-owners Justin Yu and Karen Man were bustling about the former Latin Bites space in the Warehouse district with their sommelier and general manager, Justin Vann. The trio has done much of the work on the historic iron works building themselves, and they were slinging drills and stepping carefully over piles of the copper wire that will form the new lighting system.
With the help of Gin Braverman of Gin Designs, they've pared down and lightened the space to its antique industrial bones, depolarizing the windows to let in the light and the views, and playing up the lovely old brick. From a small sink trailed long ropy vines: clippings of jasmine from friend-of-the-house David Leftwich's yard, ready to plant on the wire trellises that will eventually shade the outdoor deck with its spectacular view of downtown Houston.
Vann showed off the turntable where they'll spin old-school vinyl (donations accepted), and Yu pointed out the ancient bank vault they've turned into a storage room. High on an industrial shelf, stark against a coat of white paint, forked branches scavenged from a neighborhood tree spread their fingers, waiting for the moment when they'll be used to present checks to diners at the end of a meal.
The minute they signed the lease on the space, Yu and Man, his wife, set off towards Fredericksburg on an antiqueing expedition, gathering vintage cooking and service pieces as they went. Over the gleaming Jade Range, purchased used on E-bay, sat shelves of sauté pans including some antique copper they'd found. Yu stepped out of the bank vault cradling a vintage teapot and fondue-type kettle as if they were a pair of prized Pekingeses.
The scene, the ingenuity and the budget-consciousness reminded me of young people furnishing their first apartment, with all the excitement and determination and uncertainty that entails. That's kind of what's happening here on the corner of Nance: a carefully planned leap into the unknown, pieced together more with smarts than with money.
The U-shape of that counter I was so glad to see isn't plonked dead in front of the kitchen, like a row of theater seats. "I'm not big on requiring people to look into the kitchen," said Yu wryly when I asked him about the arrangement. Diners can converse among themselves across the well of space or watch what's happening in the kitchen if they feel like it.
The counter decision matches what I've observed about Yu in the past, as he returned from a formative stint at Ubuntu, in Napa, to take part in the well-received Just-8 pop-up project with Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan, then went on to stage a series of very successful pop-up dinners and Asian-inflected "Moneycat" brunches over the next year. Yu is a quiet, thoughtful presence, not inclined to cheffy strut or braggadocio. Of course he'd be uncomfortable at the idea of being on stage. But he's confident enough to know that he deserves one.
That U-shaped counter, set slightly back from the kitchen, is the perfect expression of the tension between those two poles of being.
The various details of the restaurant express Yu and company's commitment to a sense of place. It wasn't enough for them to simply serve tasting menus of locally and regionally sourced ingredients planned with an eye to the seasons here on the subtropical Texas Gulf Coast. They wanted to go local with their design, too. So the leather service aprons are custom-designed and crafted by Kyle Kubin, a Heights leatherworker, and the knives are all-different custom jobs by Russell Montgomery of Serenity Knives, who's been blogging about the process as he goes along.
Some of the plates will be by Steve Campbell of Three Dot Pots, who hit on a subtle orangey glaze finished with wood-ash to harmonize with the walls of old exposed brick. Art? The principals are going to make their own prints, framed in rough wood, using vegetables dipped into pig's blood, which is to say the yin and yang of their menu. I am not making that up.
And just wait until you see the graffiti art in the restrooms. It's by local street artist Wiley Robertson and it is not to be missed. I predict many intramural field trips between the men's and ladies'.
With just nine two-top tables, a single 8-top and the counter surrounded by stools, Oxheart will only seat 30-some diners. The deck won't be used for dining right away, if ever; Yu says it will serve as more of a cocktail spot and waiting area for pre- or post-dinner.
He's got his small staff lined up, including a former colleague from Ubuntu, Christie Rafanan, who drove down from California with Man last month, and will be the only server besides Vann. In the kitchen--with no designated sous chef or other titles--will be Willet Feng, a Cordon Bleu Austin grad who's got Seattle, Uchiko and private chef credits on his resume; Jason White, most recently of Revival Market and Stella Sola; and Mark Clayton, who has worked with Randy Rucker at Rainbow Lodge and Bootsie's.
Yes, yes, yes. What about the food? All I could pry from Yu about his opening menus was a dish he's working on using Japanese red Okame spinach grown by David Cater at Utility Research Farms. He's going to steam it over jasmine tea and serve it with a mix of white-miso-marinated grains (quinoa, puffed wheat berries and hard red wheat). Somewhere in there will be some Sai Sai flowers, harvested from a radish-like sprout with no roots that's growing in the nearby Emile Street Gardens. Oh yes, and a creamy egg yolk.
To see how the pieces fall together, you'll have to get serious about landing a reservation. The booking process for this tiny, buzzed-about restaurant begins by phone at noon on Tuesday, March 13, and reservations will only be taken two weeks in advance. It's a level playing field, if not an easy one.
(Oxheart, 1302 Nance St., 832-830-8592)