Yu may be the country's most visionary vegetable chef, combining ingredients that are ravishing to the eyes and electric on the palate. That his restaurant proves one of the city's most challenging reservations helps explain why Houston has such a hot dining scene: It's a town that revels in multiculturalism and rewards ambition. Yu grew up in a family that ran Cantonese restaurants. After culinary school, he worked at Chicago's vegetarian trendsetter Green Zebra and interned at starry destinations like Geranium in Copenhagen. He returned to his hometown and ran a pop-up called Moneycats before opening Oxheart with his wife, Karen Man, who bakes can't-resist breads like downy pain au lait laced with black pepper.
Yu and his cooks certainly have mastery over searing duck breast or enriching flaky green garlic pancakes with beef marrow. But it's with vegetables that he evokes time and place. One dish reminded me of the early stages in making soup — when the onions, sweating in butter, smell so sweet and are melting so seductively that you want to pull them off the stove and simply eat those for dinner. Yu went for it, garnishing the limpid onions with breadcrumbs and oregano. They needed nothing more.
Another course conjured Germanic influences in Texas food culture: cabbage sauerkraut and purple hull peas simmered into a brothy stew came strewn with pickled and fermented sweet peppers. Yu admires the Rothko Chapel in Houston, and I thought of Mark Rothko's gradations of color while I devoured Yu's cured and smoked butternut squash with painterly splatters of three sauces: a saffron-hued soubise of onions and squash blossoms and both a goat's milk and a brown butter emulsion. The thermostat plunges even in Houston this time of year, and the flavors warmed accordingly.
The food may be worthy of a temple, but the space (in Houston's Warehouse District near downtown) disarms any chance at pretension. Brick walls frame the 31-seat room, the center of which is a counter that overlooks a kitchen humming with the most diverse corps of cooks I've ever seen. During my dinner, iconic records played on a turntable: Michael Jackson's Off the Wall, Joni Mitchell's Blue, Go-Go's Beauty and the Beat. Over the music I eavesdropped while Yu chatted with customers who'd just had Gulf amberjack overlaid with sea moss embellished with a grating of dried blue runner fish and crowned with a lightly steamed lettuce leaf. "I worry that it's too Chinese," he said. "I don't want to be pigeonholed." Yu later told me he decided to keep it on the menu, which made me glad: The dishes with Asian intimations are always some of his strongest.
The same can be said for Chris Shepherd. Underbelly, where he is chef and co-owner, opened less than three years ago in the happening Montrose neighborhood but gained near-instant national fame for its menu approach: Shepherd looks to the city's many immigrant communities, and their mom-and-pop restaurants, for inspiration. On a given night, pork belly Thai curry might share table space with Greek meatballs with tzatziki, flatiron carne asada served with green chiles, and tilefish surrounded by Southern sides like field peas, greens, and cornbread. Dumpling-like Korean rice sticks napped in a kinetic sauce of gochujang (chile paste) and flossy goat meat remains a must-order staple.
Honestly, not every dish is always flawless (a recent salad showcased pickled shrimp that were mealy), but the ideas and spirit behind the food usually win out. The night I was there the crowd included blacks, whites, Asians, Latinos, and Middle Eastern families. It must be rewarding for Shepherd to look out into his dining room to see the faces that mirror his inclusive cooking.
In recent years the Montrose area has become a culinary Ellis Island. In the same few blocks you'll find Blacksmith, a coffeehouse that serves an all-day breakfast of Vietnamese steak and eggs with toasted baguette and chicken liver pâté; El Real, a Tex-Mex joint (housed in a former 1930s cinema with a beckoning Art Deco sign) serving righteous enchiladas and fajitas devised from historic recipes; and Indika, an upscale Indian gem run by Anita Jaisinghani, who also serves Indian thalis and cardamom-scented brioche bun for breakfast at Pondicheri in the hip Upper Kirby neighborhood.
Indika came first, in 2002. I'm waiting for the day when more ambitious Indian restaurants specialize in specific regional cuisines. In the meanwhile, I'll happily sweep through the subcontinent via Jaisinghani's modern riffs. She deconstructs her saag paneer, filling a shallow bowl with a fresh-tasting combination of spinach and mustard greens, flavoring fresh cheese with saffron, adding a dollop of plum chutney, and finishing the dish with a crackery take on makki ki roti, a wheat and cornmeal flatbread that's popular in the Punjab. Earthy-sweet beet raita offsets tiny, pointy bitter melons stuffed with spiced paneer. Goat brains are all about texture, as delicate as softly scrambled eggs; amchur masala (a curry blend that includes piquant mango powder) delivers the flavor buzz.
Mexico City native Hugo Ortega and his wife, Tracy Vaught, opened Hugo's in Montrose around the same that Indika launched. Serving dishes like octopus al carbon, tuna taquitos, and beef cheek in tingly, complex pasilla sauce, it became (beyond Rick Bayless' empire) one of the nation's few upscale Mexican restaurant success stories. Late last year, Ortega and Vaught brought to life Caracol, a bright room in the Galleria/Uptown area flaunting light woods and modern art and serving Mexican seafood specialties.
The kitchen produces ceviches with disparate personalities. Petalos de Huachinango was the beauty pageant winner — snapper strewn over a rectangular platter with tangerine supremes and translucent ribbons of cucumber rolled like Chinese firecrackers. Ceviche Acapulqueño played the street-wise gamine with its mix of snapper, tomato, and onion feisty with Worcestershire sauce. (I preferred the latter.) Gulf oysters pulled from the wood-fired oven drifted in melted butter spiked with just enough chipotle. Wood-grilled pompano came with chunky pineapple, sliced radishes and red onions, and small lettuce leaves. The collage was somewhere between a salad and a salsa and its freshness only enhanced the fish's smoky virtues.
And speaking of smoke: I may largely gravitate toward Houston's accomplished global-minded restaurants, but for a true taste of Texas I couldn't leave without a thirty-minute trip to the town of Pearland and new Killen's Barbecue, recently awarded four stars by Houston Chronicle critic Alison Cook. Ronnie Killen runs heralded Killen's Steakhouse less than a mile away and spent years experimenting with woods and techniques to hone his command of barbecue. It paid off, as evidenced by the Friday lunch line flowing not just out the door but also down the sidewalk. Forty minutes later I was in a carnivorous trance. The brisket, peppery and precisely rendered, rivaled Aaron Franklin's in its sumptuous glory. The beef rib was almost indecent in its pink, custardy richness. Mustard seeds hid just under the sausage's pearly surface, providing extra pop. Pork, both crusty ribs and a tangled mass of pulled strands, showed near-equal splendor to the beef. Even the seasonal pumpkin bread pudding stood out, though I couldn't manage more than a couple of bites.
Texas’ coastal bend has its share of solid barbecue shacks, but none I’ve tried before reach these heady heights. With Killen’s, barbecue ascends to noble status among the other remarkable world cuisines flourishing in Houston.
Restaurant Editor Bill Addison is traveling to chronicle what's happening in America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back in January to find out which restaurants made the cut.
Food Photos: Bill Addison