“They spell puddin’ with a ‘G’ here, hon.”
I throw on a Texas twang neither of us have while I joke with my sister. It’s the first time we’ve had dinner alone in five years, and we’ve driven three and a half hours to get here.
We decide that in our home state, eliding that letter is required when speaking of corn puddin(g), but optional when one merely writes about it. Now before I do precisely that, some background is required…
So one night last summer a bunch of people and I feasted on hay-roasted, dry-aged pigeon by candlelight in a huge New York loft at 3am (#nbd). After dinner, a guy in a yellow t-shirt and a white apron approached the awkward, camera-wielding fellow across the room: “Hey, are you.. Aaron?”
For years, I had read his writing and he had been unfortunate enough to read mine. Now for the first time, faces were put to names. His is Justin, and I respect him immensely.
Justin Yu and his wife Karen are Texan. They’ve worked their asses off for little or no money in kitchens around the globe. Staging is the euphemism, and many have the ambition to do it. But along the way, they documented with full candor their adventures and their misadventures. Few have such courage.
Courage manifests confidence; and integrity, humility. Compliment Justin or Karen on a dish and they give more shout-outs than a Funkmaster Flex mix tape. But the fact is, it’s gutsy to serve Gulf fish while fishermen still try to clean up the stained consumer confidence left behind by yesteryear’s oil spill. It takes gumption to serve a vegetable-focused tasting menu in a city plagued by obesity and steakhouses. At Oxheart they rep Houston, because Houston is home.
Dinner here starts not with bread and butter but squash and persimmon. They’ve been made into an emulsion of sorts, a froth into which a hundred varied ingredients have seemingly melted to create the single, balanced spoonful you’ve just set atop your tongue. There’s oregano and malt; little beads of tapioca; marcona almonds and a powder we learn is grated peach (dehydrated to the point that it’s a dead ringer for nutmeg). Lots of words that send me a short message: pay attention.
Okra reroutes us to Amarillo, the Cadillac Ranch in vegetable form. It stands upright in corn pudding, wearing pickled peppers like halos. My instinct is to pluck the sculptures up one by one, but that procedure is flawed. Better, I learn, to combine them with the marinated seeds and the mounds of salsa maro, a Ligurian pesto usually made with favas but here with charred bits of okra. The resulting bite is more round.
Sunflower seed soup follows, with an explanation so quick and verbose that I do not. But my other senses fill in the blanks — the crunch of puffed grains and rices, the complex sweetness of a burnt onion puree.
If Yu’s food is a study of contrast, it is not, necessarily, one in monotonous balance. He is unafraid to throw punches. A steamed fillet of Gulf barrelfish, pristine and pearly white, does not ready you for the intensely flavored preserved shellfish sofrito with which it’s dabbed. A single rosa bianca eggplant, lacquered in mushroom jus, has such tongue-coating umami that it feels nearly gelatinous. But you are shell-shocked by (and then somehow grateful for) the wildly sour, citrus-dressed quinoa by its side.
The dish sandwiched by these two is subtle and spectacular. Young goat has been lightly smoked and roughly chopped. It shines under a transparent sheet of kombu aspic. Lime, cucumber and Thai basil are as clear to the palate as they are to the eye. The tartare is decidedly rich, disarmingly light. I’m confused and I am happy.
Guinea hen nods, I think, to the huge Vietnamese population that calls Houston home. Lemongrass, galangal, and ginger shoots certainly point that way. The meat is beautifully moist, and I can only nod approvingly at the cook responsible for it. I see ya, boy.
Karen Man is responsible for desserts, and sings her verse in a more classically French key than Justin’s. Her puff pastry, for example, cannot be faulted. A napoleon filled with acorn squash and sage-infused pastry cream shatters into a thousand pieces when you stab it, just as it should. A spongy genoise layered with fuyu persimmon wouldn’t be out of place at, say, Paris’ Sadaharu Aoki.
But this isn’t Paris, France; nor Paris, TX. It’s a self-proclaimed progressive restaurant in Houston. And if I’m allowed just one small gripe with Oxheart, it is the stylistic disconnect between its savory courses and its sweet.
I’ve been to nearly all of the restaurants and bakeries that Justin and Karen have worked at over the years, and to an important one that I’ve missed, I will actually pay a visit this weekend. Vestiges of those kitchens and those cities are all around Oxheart — in the plating aesthetic and the light fixtures, the silverware drawers and the leather butcher’s aprons worn by the servers. The important thing is that Justin and Karen have brought the chapters of those stories back home. For this, Houston should be so grateful.