Anyone who wants to know how personal Oxbow 7’s menu is for chef Bryan Caswell only has to look at the menu — each item is written in his script.
Almost five months after announcing the restaurant, which opened last week in the first floor of downtown’s brand new Le Meridien hotel, diners are finally getting a first taste of what Caswell and his wife Jennifer describe as “elevated bayou cuisine.” For the chef, it’s the first new concept working with Jennifer and without his longtime business partner Bill Floyd. More importantly, it’s his most ambitious project since Stella Sola opened in 2009.
Before diving into the food, a couple of quick thoughts on the building and the room, which is every bit as gorgeous as the renderings promised. Located at the corner of San Jacinto and Walker, Le Meridien sits in the heart of downtown’s central business district in close proximity to the Houston Center, Four Seasons hotel, Discovery Green, House of Blues, etc.
A ground-up restoration has returned the Melrose building to its full, Mid-century glory, complete with turquoise tiles along the side. That continues with the hotel’s furnishings, all of which could have come straight out of the Mad Men prop warehouse.
With the lobby on the second floor, diners enter Oxbow 7 directly from the street. Once inside, they’ll see a dozen or so seats at the bar before entering the main dining room, which is dominated by a Space Age-inspired lighting fixture that occupies the center of the room. One wall features a brightly colored mural painted by celebrated local artist Gonzo.
The six-page menu
“Here’s the only current copy of the menu,” Caswell tells me when he stops by the table. Apparently, the booklets given to us by the hostess were short a couple dishes. Tucked into a replica of a field notebook, the six-page document is divided into (unlabeled) sections: snacks, shareable plates, entrees, sides, and desserts. The back cover contains a little about the Caswells’ inspiration for the restaurant.
After noting the reasonable prices (nothing over $25), my party of four busted out a calculator and did a little math. We realized we could order every dish on the menu — 19 savory and three desserts — for about $250. Why not get as complete a picture of the restaurant as possible?
Each section of the menu offers memorable bites. From the snacks, it’s the crispy potato salad; a dish that combines potato chips, sauce gribiche, hot links, and ghost pepper caviar into a satisfying combination of crunchy textures with spicy, creamy, and salty flavors. At only $11, it might be the least expensive way to experience caviar in Houston.
After hearing our raves, Caswell jokes that he’s going to rename the dish “East Texas caviar service;” he probably should. It’s a lot more memorable than “crispy potato salad.”
The two pages of shareable items offer the most highlights, including buck shot gumbo ($9), which arrives with a thin broth fairly loaded with sausage and duck, and a crab gratin ($11) that’s light on cheese and heavy on crab. Dumping a little sweet crab into the gumbo balances out the broth’s saltiness, and we congratulated ourselves on our clever hack of the menu.
Given that Caswell has always had a deft touch when it comes to Vietnamese flavors, it should come as no surprise that Cast Net Bun Rieu ($14) emerged as our favorite dish of the night. An aromatic crab broth gets poured over a bowl bearing a cake of tomato and raw crab along with shrimp, noodles, and fresh mint. Sweet, spicy, and herbal elements combine to create a dish that’s not to be missed by anyone who visits Oxbow 7.
After so many highs in the shareables section — I haven’t even mentioned the lightly fried popcorn shrimp with crispy cauliflower ($8) or a riff on Thai-style papaya salad ($11) — perhaps it was inevitable that two of the heartier mains would be a comparative letdown. A chicken fried tomahawk pork chop ($21) that’s pounded thin, schnitzel-style and a small portion of dry-aged New York strip ($21) might be important dishes for hotel guests, but they lacked the depth and complexity of the earlier dishes. I’d rather order either the boudin-stuffed quail ($19) that delivered some serious livery funk or the crispy skin snapper ($24) that’s been one of Caswell’s signature items since day one at Reef.
Of all the chefs Caswell has assembled for Oxbow, it’s sous chef Sarah Schnitzer and her creative desserts ($12 each) that stand out the most. Want something classic? Go with the buttery “Gooey Cake” with apples. Fans of Milk Bar-style nostalgia should rush to the bright pink vanilla sable that comes with bubblegum ice cream.
Back in August, wine expert Nathan Rose promised the restaurant would serve food-friendly wines in line with contemporary tastes. Of the examples he provided, we most enjoyed the Gut Oggau Theodora, a biodynamic Gruner Veltliner from Austria that delivered a savory contrast to the dishes.
Service is tricky to evaluate when either Caswell or chef de cuisine Michael Hoffman presented every dish and the wine director is offering pairings, but our server seemed to have a solid grasp on the menu and checked in regularly to make sure we were well taken care of. With Rose and a veteran crew monitoring the dining room, it’s hard to imagine a diner being neglected.
While our party of four adults mostly devoured the dishes, I doubt most people will need to go to similar lengths to leave satisfied. For a party of two, I’d start with the caviar, pick a couple of shareables (definitely the bun rieu, maybe the popcorn shrimp), split an order of snapper, and save room for dessert. That would put a total meal for two at about $70 plus drinks, tax, and tip.
After dinner we got a sneak peek at Hoggbirds, the restaurant’s companion bar that’s located on the hotel’s roof. With both a great view of the neighboring skyscrapers and an expansive view south, I expect the bar will quickly become a hotspot, especially with bartender Judith Piotrowski crafting the cocktail menu.
Whether or not it’s better than Reef is irrelevant at the moment — the restaurant is still closed after being damaged by floodwaters — but I’ll be interested to see how one restaurant influences the other when Reef reopens. The Caswells plan to use the insurance money to fund Reef’s long-awaited remodel, which should have the restaurant on track to reopen in November (fingers crossed).
Until then, Oxbow 7 serves a couple of different purposes. For Le Meridien’s guests, it’s the hotel’s restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner 365 days a year, and I observed several of them hanging out at the bar or enjoying drinks and dessert in the dining room after 10 pm.
For Houstonians, it serves as a reminder of the time when Bryan Caswell earned a Food & Wine Best New Chef award in 2009 and James Beard Best Chef: Southwest finalists nominations in 2010 and 2011. Calling it a comeback seems trite, and I’m sure the chef wouldn’t appreciate me using that particular word. Let’s just say it’s nice to get some fresh ideas from him, particularly in such an elegant room and at a relatively affordable price.
One meal less than a week into a restaurant’s life is too soon to form any definitive opinions about its success, but all four of us left very impressed by the meal. I can’t wait to go back.
Oxbow 7; 1121 Walker; 6 am to 10 pm Sunday through Thursday, 6 am to 11 pm Friday and Saturday; 713-487-6137