Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Food for Thought: Oxheart

This weekend, I finally had the chance to try Oxheart. You may not have heard of it; I realized that most of my coworkers have not when I told them what my Valentine's Day plans were. Oxheart was recently named one of the Best New Restaurants in 2012 by Bon Appetit and mentioned in this weekend's Wall Street Journal article about a weekend in Houston. The Chronicle's food critic also listed it as the No. 1 Restaurant in Houston. It was also just announced as a semifinalist for the James Beard Award (Best New Restaurant - Southwest). So, I guess if you don't actively follow the food scene, this place may not even be on your radar yet.

I am a very plain eater; I love mac and cheese, burgers, and pizza. I didn't eat seafood until I met my husband, I still hate shellfish, and I don't really care for lamb. I think veal is mean and I try to avoid it, and "weird" meats like sweetbreads or tongue are completely out of the question. So, I am always nervous about going to restaurants that food critics love. Add to that the fact that Oxheart has set menus daily with little wiggle room, and I was very hesitant to try this place. But, my husband was dying to, so away we went.

Here's what I wish I knew about Oxheart before we went - it's in the warehouse district downtown (near UH-Downtown) so there is no valet or obvious parking lot. Apparently there is a small shared lot, but we never saw it. We had no problems finding parking for our 5:30 reservation (it was the only time available), but you might if you go later. I was really concerned about dress. I wore jeans and boots, but I should have worn heels or even a dress. I didn't feel completely underdressed, but I think I could have dressed up more. Finally, there is no sign (that we could see) outside the restaurant. Just know that the address is 1302 Nance and look for the address above the door to know you're in the right place. Also, you push the door (don't pull like we did, think they weren't open yet, and stand outside like idiots. Oops.).

The place feels like it has fewer than 20 seats, though I didn't count. The kitchen is open, the walls are exposed brick, and it is very tiny. A completely different feel from any other restaurant I have been to. The tables were custom made with drawers built in the sides that have all of your silverware and napkins. That was a little different, but I liked it. The tables are really close together. This is not the place to go for a private conversation or with someone you have nothing to talk about with, because the awkwardness will be obvious to the tables next to you. I thought it was really nice that if the wait staff was otherwise occupied, the chef just brought the food out himself and explained how it was prepared and which farm it came from.

Andrew and I both opted to try the Winter Menu with beverage pairings. When I saw that the proteins were fish and turkey and heard that the wines were all white (I don't have a palate for red. I've tried) I was relieved I wasn't going to have to force myself to try anything out of my comfort zone.

The first wine we had was a rainwater Madeira (I thought they said it was made from rainwater but my husband thinks I made that up) and was very sweet. The sommelier explained that the sweetness would be nice with the bitterness of the soup in the first course. I thought that the beverage pairings were a great deal and definitely recommend them. We didn't get a full glass with each pour, but the plates are small enough to where the portions of food and beverage were perfect. The soup was a warm sunflower seed soup with puffed rice. The puffed rice was mixed with dill and was on one side of a shallow bowl, and there was some herb-y oil in other portions. The soup was poured into the bowl at the table and we were told to eat around the bowl, not mix together. Each part of the bowl was different and unlike anything I have ever eaten before. It was my husband's favorite dish of the meal.

The soup. All photos are via iPhone because in a place this small, real photography should be a crime.

The bread course was amazing. It wasn't listed on the menu so it was a surprise. I was bummed when I was told it was English muffins, because I normally hate English muffins because to me, they have no flavor. These were small English muffins that had been finished in a cast iron skillet and they were served with herbed lard. When we heard lard, we both looked at each other. Lard? I'm supposed to eat that? I know that it is what goes in refried beans to make them taste good, but I have never just eaten it before. I cut open a muffin and put a tiny taste of lard inside. Oh.my.goodness. I think the bread was that much better because I was expecting fat spread on cardboard (no offense, Oxheart. It was nothing you did. Just my preconceived notions of both ingredients). I didn't want to be done with those bites, and I was half tempted to ask for more. I didn't snap a photo initially, because it was "just bread," but after I realized how much I loved it, I had to take a pic before I ate my final muffin. It was my favorite part of the entire meal and I probably could have eaten at least ten of those little doughy little bites. English muffins - 1, Lauren - 0.

OMG bread

The second course was a fish course: grouper that was just caught the day before and brought to the restaurant earlier in the day. It had a roasted garlic sauce and another sauce made with bonito flakes (which Andrew tells me are fish scales) and kale with it. Here's the thing - it didn't taste like fish at all. It was steamed and perfect and flaky and the garlic was flavorful but not IN YOUR FACE garlic. My only tiny issue was that I couldn't neatly cut the kale with my butter knife (probably due to user error), but this was my favorite course of the meal.

So pretty and the kale was so bright.

The final savory course was turkey- both breast and thigh. I believe the thigh was sous vide. It was served over mustard greens cooked down with dijon and a sauce made from a Vietnamese herb. It was turkey unlike I have ever had before (you know, roasted, fried, or smoked and served with mashed potatoes) and I really enjoyed it.

Not your average turkey.

For dessert, we were served an almond financier with orange sorbet and ginger foam. My general rule with dessert is "if it's not chocolate, I don't want it," so I didn't have high hopes for this. I'm just not a fruity dessert kind of person. However, the sweetness of the cake and the tartness of the sorbet (along with its coldness) and then the light, ginger foam was unlike anything I have ever had. The textures, temperatures, and flavors were so completely unique that I didn't miss not having chocolate in my final course.

Yum.

Would I go to Oxheart again? Absolutely. Would I recommend it to a friend? It depends on the friend. You really have to be open to new experiences here. I happened to get lucky with a menu featuring more traditional ingredients, but as my husband said on the way home, it really is a place that will cook good food well, but in the manner that the chef wants to cook it. It isn't huge portions and there aren't white tablecloths, so depending on what you expect from a "nice" dinner, this might not be the place for you. I think that is why their Yelp reviews are kind of negative (it definitely isn't due to the food in my opinion!) But, if you are looking for a new experience in both ambiance and cuisine, then I think it's definitely worth a try. We will be back, for sure.

{ETA: My husband emailed the restaurant for more info about the Madeira that he enjoyed and got a response back from the chef that night with additional info on where to buy it. Amazing customer service! And, if somehow you found my blog by googling Oxheart due to all the recent press it received, please keep an eye out here because I am looking forward to ruminating some more on Houston's restaurant scene.}

Do restaurants like Oxheart interest you? Do you  have a favorite place that I should try?


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