Generally speaking, I don’t get sentimental about restaurants. Even when a place I admire closes, I tend to be so focused on whatever the chef’s next project will be that I don’t mourn the loss of what’s gone away.
So it’s a little strange that I’ve found myself feeling somewhat wistful about Oxheart, the restaurant I dined at for the last time Monday night before it closes for good on Wednesday, its fifth anniversary. I keep thinking back to the meals I’ve eaten there during its five-year run with friends and family, an ex-girlfriend or two, writers visiting Houston from other cities, even a vegan.
Monday night’s meal featured familiar faces at roughly half the tables — chefs from acclaimed local restaurants, a couple of bar owners, a Michelin-starred visitor from California — all, like my friends and I, dining there for the last time. “Nostalgic” only typically applies to meals associated with family occasions like Thanksgiving or Christmas, but the feeling in the dining room Monday night certainly had that quality.
Maybe I’m feeling a little sentimental because Oxheart is so different than every other restaurant in Houston. Five years ago, the notion that a 31-seat, vegetable-oriented tasting menu restaurant located next to a tattoo parlor would not only be the consensus pick for the city’s best restaurant (both locally and nationally in publications like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Eater) but that its then 20-something executive chef, Justin Yu, would earn national acclaim as both a Food & Wine Best New Chef and a James Beard award for Best Chef: Southwest would have sounded fairly ridiculous.
And yet, those things happened.
Although I poked a little fun at how Oxheart arrived at a moment when it was perfectly on-trend — maybe even a honeypot for a certain type of food writer — I certainly never intended to dismiss what an extraordinary and unlikely achievement its success has been. We might not see another restaurant that strikes lightning in quite the same way as the entity created by Yu and his partners, sommelier Justin Vann and baker Karen Man. For as much talent and diversity as Houston has, dining here will get a little worse after Wednesday when we don’t have Oxheart around.
A certain segment of the dining public never quite bought into the acclaim. One star Yelp reviews called it over hyped. The normally burger-obsessed H-Town Chow Down blog brought in a guest blogger for an attempted take down that compared it to Souper Salad.
The big challenge
One CultureMap reader was so incensed about Oxheart’s lofty status that he challenged me to eat there on the same day at the same time to prove that media members got better treatment than other diners. When we compared notes the next day, he seemed almost disappointed to concede that we had been served the same meal.
When he still complained that the dining experience lacked refinement because of the vinyl soundtrack, the requirement for diners to pull their own silverware from drawers in the tables, and that a bowl of soup hadn’t been served in a properly warmed bowl, I realized that we had very different expectations about the elements of an excellent meal. Rather than try to convince him of Oxheart’s merits, I thanked him for his time and moved on.
As a hedge against becoming too obsequious, I tried to dine with people who hadn’t been there before, figuring that if they enjoyed it — even with the lofty expectations created by its considerable reputation — that the emperor still had his clothes. Time and again my friends shared my assessment that Oxheart was still “worth it.” I did that again in February with a friend who has spent years working in various aspects of the restaurant industry; she proclaimed it to be one of the best meals of her life.
It was certainly one of the best meals I’d eaten there, matched again Monday night. Maybe that’s part of what makes this closing so bittersweet. Not only has Oxheart not slipped — it might be better than ever at achieving its goals of utilizing rigorously sourced Texas ingredients to craft dishes that Yu once described as “kind of Asian, kind of Southern, a little quirky . . . always (with) attention to details as far as techniques go.”
Rather than coasting to the finish, Yu is still innovating. Monday night’s menu featured a turkey dish that only went on the menu a few days ago. Could this be a preview of what’s coming next, I inquired. Yu smiled and shrugged.
What's next for Yu
Clearly, he’s not quite ready to share the details of whatever he’s got planned for the restaurant that will replace Oxheart, except that he told me he’s excited about being freed from the tasting menu format. I teased him about adding a burger in a nod to accessibility. He joked about not being known for doing what's expected of him.
His other project, a bar he’s opening with Anvil owner Bobby Heugel in the former Dry Creek space, still doesn’t officially have a name (although one well-placed source told me it will be called B.L.T.), but it’s making swift enough progress towards opening that Yu said he’ll start the training for it in the next week or two.
He added that he’s been so busy wrapping up Oxheart and preparing for what’s to come that he’s declined a couple of interview requests from people who want him to look back on what he’s achieved. That attitude seems typical of a restaurant that’s never employed a publicist and has always had a somewhat skeptical approach to the media. Yu has always answered questions sent via email, but he has never hosted a media dinner, comped a meal, or generally played the games most chefs do in search of attention. Essentially, Oxheart earned attention by being so good at what it does that writers would be failing at their jobs if they ignored it.
Whenever Yu’s next projects open and whatever they’re called, I’ll be there. Not just because it’s my job, but because I’ve enjoyed some of the most memorable meals of my life at Oxheart. I can’t wait to see what’s next.