One of this summer’s most-eagerly anticipated restaurants has an opening date. Oxbow 7, Reef chef-owner Bryan Caswell’s restaurant in downtown’s new Le Meridien hotel, will make its debut on August 29 (Update 8/25: The opening has been postponed until September 12).
Caswell and his wife Jennifer announced the project back in May on CultureMap’s podcast “What’s Eric Eating.” It’s his first new chef-driven concept since opening Stella Sola in 2009. At the time, Caswell said Oxbow 7 would serve “elevated bayou cuisine,” which he described as follows:
If you think of everything east of Houston and west of Mobile, that’s our defining area, 50 to 100 miles (from the coast): inland fish, inland game. Kind of harks to my childhood where I was a redneck Huck Finn that would run around the bayous. I was allowed to run and dig up crawfish and gig for frogs and do all these kind of things that for me were very natural.
If anyone knows anything about the history of haute cuisine, once Escoffier started, it was the common man food that created haute cuisine. That’s what we’re trying to do. Take this common man food of the people and elevate it a little bit. Jennifer just spit it out, ‘elevated bayou cuisine.’
Prior to opening Reef, Caswell served as the chef de cuisine at Bank Jean-Georges in the Hotel Icon, an experience that left him thinking Houstonians wouldn’t embrace a hotel restaurant the same way diners in cities like New York, New Orleans, and Chicago do. However, a meeting with the Le Meredien hotel’s owners convinced him to give it another shot.
“They offered us the opportunity to be completely autonomous from a restaurant standpoint while still running the (food and beverage) with the hotel,” Caswell says. “If they wouldn’t have done that, I wouldn’t have done it. It gives us an opportunity to really build a team and try to do something that I don’t think has been done very much in the city, and that’s create a really good hotel restaurant.”
To help Caswell realize his vision, he’s assembled a talented crew whose resumes span some of Houston’s best restaurants. Chef de cuisine Michael Hoffman has worked at both Cafe Annie and Mark’s American Cuisine. Sarah Schnitzer, one of three sous chefs at the restaurant, left her role as the pastry chef at Pax Americana for an opportunity to create both sweet and savory dishes. Bar manager Judith Piotrowski will be on a restaurant's opening crew for the fourth time in her career (after Coppa Osteria, Weights + Measures, and Bayou & Bottle).
Wine expert Nathan Rose brings a wealth of experience to his role creating Oxbow’s wine list. He’s served as both a fine wine buyer for Spec’s and a broker who helped small, independent wineries find distribution in Texas. Rose tells CultureMap that he’s teaching both Caswells how to create a modern wine list that’s different than what Reef has been known for.
“My goal, and what they’re paying me to do, is to move what’s into my head into their heads, to build a brand,” Rose says. “What I’m putting in front of them are savory wines. They’re family winemakers . . . very cool, hip wines . . . The wines have to be food-friendly. Reef has been a California center, because five years ago Napa killed it in Houston. The wine business has moved on, and chef’s cuisine has moved on.”
Of all the cooks in the kitchen, both Jennifer and Bryan seem most excited about giving Schnitzer an opportunity to step into a larger role and raise her public profile. After including the chef at their most recent Salty Supper fundraiser, the couple invited Schnitzer to join Oxbow’s team.
“I think Sarah is one of the most underutilized cooks I’ve seen at a restaurant,” Caswell says. Later, he adds, “so far, she’s been so much fun to work with.”
Bryan says that Schnitzer is already working on her versions of Le Meridien’s signature eclairs: bourbon milk punch with pecan, cafe sua da, and a savory, kolache-inspired version that uses an East Texas-style hot link with jalapeno jelly.
Piotrowski will oversee the bar program at both Oxbow 7 and Hoggbirds, the hotel’s rooftop bar. Jennifer says that she and Bryan sought Piotrowski out after receiving recommendations from close friends in the restaurant industry.
“The thing is with a lot of bartenders they migrate quite a bit. They move on to the new thing . . . the most buzzed about thing. I don’t blame them. That’s where you make money,” Jennifer says. “With Judith, we tried the cocktails based on your recommendation, and everyone kept saying she’s a good person. She’s a hard worker. She’s accountable. Her drinks are amazing, but to hear that she’s a good human along with making great drinks was a big bonus for me.”
Piotrowski tells CultureMap that Oxbow 7’s cocktail list will focus on classic Southern cocktails that suit Caswell’s cuisine, but she has different plans for Hoggbirds. “It’s going to be more light and fun: a lot of gin and tequila, everything you would want when you’re in the sun on the rooftop looking over the city,” she says.
With so much talent on board, Oxbow 7 looks poised to break Houston’s hotel restaurant curse. Beginning in two weeks, the city’s diners will get their first chance to form a first impression on whether they agree.