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An Elegy for Oxheart, Houston’s Finest Restaurant

Chef Justin Yu drew on a diverse culture to create unforgettable tasting menus. Now, the venue is closing

Tilefish in basil-kombu broth
Tilefish in basil-kombu broth

This story first appeared in Bill Addison’s newsletter “Notes From a Roving Critic.” Subscribe now to keep up with Eater’s roving critic on the road.

If you’ve ever worked in a restaurant with a kitchen door, you know that instant, almost tangible mental shift when you’re passing between front-of-house and back-of-house. At Oxheart in Houston, there is a perch — the rightmost spot at the angled, 11-seat counter — where you dwell in that charged space for a couple of hours. It’s one of the great vantage points in America for a solo diner. From here you can see every angle of the restaurant. There’s a view straight into the semi-open kitchen, which is hidden from other parts of the 31-seat dining room by a partial wall. It’s also easy to survey all your fellow diners, to note which plate of the six-course tasting menu is in front of them, perhaps what bottle from the smart, esoteric wine list they might have ordered.

That counter seat is one of the things I’m going to miss most about Oxheart. Even when I’d made a reservation for two, I would greedily claim that roost. It isn’t often we get to hang out on a bridge between two worlds.

Last December, chef-owner Justin Yu (who ran the restaurant with baker Karen Man) announced plans to serve Oxheart’s last meal on March 15, its fifth anniversary. He’ll retain the space at the northern edge of Houston’s downtown, but will totally reconceive the restaurant he operated there. When the news of the closing dropped, we were just days away, honestly, from including Oxheart on Eater’s third annual list of the Best Restaurants in America.

What made the place so exceptional, so worthy of the local and national praise it warranted? For starters, Yu is something of a mystic with vegetables, seeing in them not only manifestations of the season, but also expressions of culture. It’s a particular Houston specialty, as a direct reflection of the city’s awesome diversity, for its most ambitious chefs to draw on the many local immigrant communities and influences as menu inspiration. Bryan Caswell was an early adopter of this approach at Reef. Chris Shepherd famously makes it the guiding principle at Underbelly, whose tagline is “the story of Houston food.” My next review focuses on a newer restaurant putting its own superb spin on Houston’s culinary multiculturalism.

Yu’s tasting menus — there were two similar versions nightly; one focused on vegetables, the other gently incorporated meat and seafood — pulled in varying cuisines while always displaying his knack for flavors that were at once clean-tasting, but also rumbling with umami. Broths and light sauces anchor many of his plates, but then the next course always contained something predominately crisp (like a mung bean crepe) or satisfyingly chewy (like cured, smoked, and roasted carrots, as sinewy as jerky.) And the restaurant’s building, with its craggy brick walls and spare decor, kept the experience from ever feeling uppity.

It only took Yu and his staff a few short strides between the stoves and my favorite counter perch to deliver some spectacular dishes. I remember a dish from Yu a few years ago that recalled Texas’s Germanic history — sauerkraut and purple hull peas united into a light, brothy stew with pickled and fermented sweet peppers. That same meal, I remember, Yu — a Houston native who grew up in Cantonese restaurants run by his family — served a course that wove in his Chinese culinary heritage: gulf amberjack covered in sea moss, gilded with a grating of dried blue runner fish, and then overlaid with a lightly-steamed lettuce leaf. In a country that thrives on bold, bombastic cooking, I always admired Yu’s taste for subtlety.

I was lucky that a trip to Houston last month left some time for a final meal at Oxheart. Perhaps nostalgia had seasoned my taste buds, but it may have been my finest meal there yet. It began with an apple broth scented with black tea and bobbing with winter greens and mushrooms. Lightly-pickled tilefish lolled in basil-kombu broth with ribbons of squash and salted fruits. I relished a dish I’d had in other variations at Oxheart: a porridge of Texas grains, cauliflower, and winter citruses gently curried with vadouvan spices. I loved the depth that dried shellfish added to a jus enriching chicken stuffed with rice and collard greens. It didn’t surprise me that Yu was so on his game in the final stretches of his pioneering restaurant; I was glad to see the restaurant so full.

Yu’s plan is to reopen in June after renovating the space, rechristening the venture (the new name remains unannounced) and switching from tasting menus to à la carte. Yu’s longtime employee Jason White will lead the kitchen as chef de cuisine. Meanwhile, get to Oxheart if you can before March 15. And expect a report from me later this year on Yu’s evolution — hopefully from that same counter perch by the kitchen.

Oxheart: 1302 Nance Street, Houston, 832-830-8592, Six courses (including the vegetarian “garden” option), $79 per person.

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