Introducing Theodore Rex
After Harvey cleanup, acclaimed chef Justin Yu's new restaurant is ready to open
One day before Hurricane Harvey made its landfall, Justin Yu and chef de cuisine Jason White opened the doors to Theodore Rex, Yu’s follow-up to Oxheart, for an invite-only friends and family service. It would have quietly opened that weekend, but, as Yu told the House of Carbs podcast, “just under two feet of water” flooded the space and scuttled those plans.
Thankfully, Yu and his team got the mess cleaned up, and the new restaurant officially opens to the public Friday night. In a statement issued Thursday morning, the James Beard Award winner describes his new restaurant as “in the plainest of terms, it’s a modern bistro, though more importantly I just hope that it’s a fun place to go to.”
While the space has been thoroughly renovated for its new incarnation — most noticeably a four-seat bar replaces the chef's counter — some elements of Oxheart remain. On the personnel side, sous chef Jason White has been promoted to chef de cuisine, server Bridget Paliwoda has returned to be the restaurant’s sommelier, and both general manager Diana Kendrick and beverage director Justin Vann (Yu’s business partner in Public Services) remain in place. In terms of design, diners will still reset their own silverware from drawers integrated into the tables, which is a nice connection between the two concepts.
The food, however, will be all new. Whereas dishes at Oxheart tended to stay on the menu for months at a time, Yu writes that he and White will work with local producers to source ingredients for a menu that will change weekly. In addition, some limited quantity dishes like a whole roasted pork collar or braised grouper cheeks will appear as they are available.
"It is food that both speak of a restaurant in time and place, and a restaurant that can be visited every week and we hope will still never be boring," Yu writes.
T. Rex’s menu hasn’t appeared online yet, but Tony’s chef de cuisine Austin Waiter shared a few images on Instagram from Monday night’s invite-only service. Dishes like fried onions and a bowl of sliced persimmons are in keeping with Yu’s vegetable-forward aesthetic, but the steak in the last picture gives some indication of the ways that T. Rex represents a new direction.
In both the early days and at the end of its run, securing reservations to Oxheart could be extremely difficult. While most of T. Rex’s tables appear to have already been snapped up online, the bar and some of the tables are reserved for walk-ins. Diners may call the restaurant for an update on wait times.
As for the inspiration behind all these changes, Yu writes that a smoked beef rib dish he served as part of his meal at the 12 days of Christmas at the Restaurant at Meadowood helped motivate the decision to close Oxheart and move in this new direction.
“My heart wasn’t in tasting menus anymore. I’m sure my mind will change in the future, but the format seemed more daunting than fun,” Yu writes. “It was challenging, but it wasn’t nearly as fun cooking small bits of food that valued consistency and creativity over seasonality and soul. And so we closed.”
Just because he’s trying to cook with “seasonality and soul” doesn’t mean Theodore Rex, which Yu named after his nephew, is any less ambitious than Oxheart. In July, Yu wrote a Facebook post looking for employees in which he noted that “We want to be the best restaurant in Houston. Whatever that means.”
Starting Friday, diners will get to decide for themselves whether he and his team are achieving that goal.
Theodore Rex; 1302 Nance Street; 5 pm to 10 pm Thursday through Monday; 832-830-8592