“You won’t see tweezer garnishes.”
This is one of the first things chef Justin Yu says when asked to explain his plans for Theodore Rex, his surprising new restaurant project taking shape in Houston.
From the outside looking in, Yu’s decision to close his hit tasting menu destination Oxheart didn’t make sense. The restaurant earned him a James Beard Award, a place on Eater’s national 38, and honors from both Food & Wine and Bon Appetit, a five-year stretch any chef would dream of having. But for Yu, the time had come. “I felt out of place doing dainty fine food. It didn’t feel like my personality anymore.”
And so now, Yu is working on Theodore Rex, a more casual restaurant in the Oxheart space that he hopes to open by the end of this month. Yu named the restaurant after his nephew; he sees the project as intensely personal. “Teddy is so carefree, and I want the restaurant to reflect that.”
But carefree doesn’t always come easily to Yu and his team. “We’re obsessive people in the kitchen,” Yu says. “At Oxheart, we obsessed over the finer things. What we obsess about here at Theodore Rex is just having fun.”
Yu says the food that Theodore Rex will be “more approachable,” with effort going more into “layering [flavors] and the process” than into the plating that Oxheart’s fine-dining format demanded. He describes the new restaurant as “almost like a modern bistro.”
Theodore Rex will serve an a la carte menu, split into familiar sections like small plates, “plates for sharing,” mains, plus desserts and cheese. “The idea is if you get one thing from every section, you’d be a happy camper,” says Yu. “But instead of us forcing that upon people in a tasting menu format, we’ll let you do whatever you want.”
Where Oxheart leaned into Asian influences, Theodore Rex will borrow from France, Italy, the Mediterranean, and Eastern Europe. Yu doesn’t seemed overly concerned with putting a label on the type of cooking he and chef de cuisine Jason White will offer. It will still be vegetable-forward, but there will be more meat. And, ultimately, there’s still plenty to connect the cooking at Oxheart to the cooking at Theodore Rex.
While lacto-fermentation and preserving were certainly part of the repertoire at Oxheart, at Theodore Rex, they are central to the way the kitchen will operate. At Oxheart, Yu and his team would make tomato fondant, reducing tomatoes almost to the point of being tomato paste. When they had extra at the end of the night (and when they were scheduled to make more the next day), he and his crew would polish off the dense, umami-rich tomato reduction with bread.
But at Theodore Rex, he will be soaking crusty bread in tomato juice, adding a swipe of the tomato fondant, and adding some cherry tomatoes on top. It’s a dish layered with flavor, but undeniably familiar and accessible. It’s sort of a souped up pan con tomate and to hear Yu describe it, it sounds like an iconic Houston dish in the making.
Yu thinks the diners who came in to Oxheart multiple times will recognize what’s happening at Theodore Rex as a “natural progression.” “People loved — and I realized I loved more and more — the simple stews, the mung bean crepe; things that didn’t necessarily fit into the fine dining format, but we were more interested in cooking.” He says that at Theodore Rex, diners will “see us loosening our ties, taking off our jackets, and having a little bit more fun.”
Since Theodore Rex occupies the former Oxheart space, Yu wanted to make enough changes to give the new restaurant a fresh start. The chef’s counter, once the center of the Oxheart dining room and experience, is gone. Instead, Theodore Rex will have a small bar (“the size of a closet”) and tables. The restaurant at capacity will likely seat no more than 28, but when the weather permits, it will have some extra room on the patio.
But smallness is part of the appeal to Yu. “It’s just one of those special spaces in Houston: It’s small, it’s kind of dim, and you can tell it’s an older building.” A former iron works factory from the early 20th century, the building, Yu says, stands out for its history in a city that’s more known for “knocking things down and building bigger things on top of it.” He’s keeping the industrial feel, while punching up the whites, adding more blues, and adding handcrafted details throughout the space.
Yu keeps tossing out the word "comfortable."
He admires beloved places like New York City’s Wildair, Paris’s Clown Bar, and Manfreds in Copenhaged. He wants a restaurant where “it’s okay to be loud,” where it’s right for a first date, serving up “food that feels right, [and that shows] the chef is comfortable with himself.”
Yu also sees it as a “point of pride” that so many Oxheart staffers are coming back to work at Theodore Rex. “This team embodies that idea of personal and comfortable.”
Currently, there are only two new employees. He’s retained all four of the Oxheart cooks — though two now work at Yu’s Better Luck Tomorrow, which opened a few months ago. White, promoted to chef de cuisine, has worked with Yu for nearly five years. Oxheart’s long time dining room manager Diane Kendrick remains on board. Even Anthony McCormick, Oxheart’s former dishwasher, is along for the ride as “underwater ceramic technician.” (He’s also training as a cook over at Better Luck Tomorrow.)
“It’s a very personal project,” Yu says. “It seems like a place like Oxheart has a timeline on its life. I want this to stand the test of time.”