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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Guest Blogger: A Visit to Oxheart

This week we're excited to introduce another guest blogger. Dr. Tom Nguyen is an active member of the Woodlands Area Foodies group, and one of the most knowledgable foodies I've met in years. He's constantly on the move trying new and different places, and he recently visited one of Houston's most written-about restaurants, Oxheart. Here's Tom's take on this media darling:


Finally had the chance to check out the hottest restaurant in Houston. Hailed by everybody from the local press to New York Times, wanted to check out the talents of Chef Justin Yu.
Oxheart. (Photo: Kent Wang)

Located discreetly in gentrified EaDo (east downtown), Oxheart is in the building where Latin Bites used to be. Look for a place with 2 wooden doors at a corner. Walking in felt like walking into somebody's small loft, no formal host/hostess, but one of the waitstaff running around will greet and seat you. Definitely a casual atmosphere.

We get seated at the kitchen counter where all the action's at. Decor is pretty cozy, again, like you're in somebody's loft rather than a restaurant. First thing I notice, cats everywhere. Chinese lucky cats (Maneki-Neko) to be exact. At the counter, there are drawers near where you sit which contains utensils and napkins. You are expected to get these yourself.

Menu consists of a tasting menu, a seasonal menu (meat) and a garden menu (no meat). Food is locally sourced from wagyu in Wallis near Eagle Lake to veggies from Atkinson Farms in Spring. We order all 3 menus.

Details of the dishes follow. (Photos by Tom Nguyen)

Heirloom carrots cooked in onion bouillon with raw/caramelized carrots, carrot top fritters, speckled trout lettuce. The fritters and carrots in onion were good. Everything else so-so. The pile of green paint in the middle tasted like paint.

Winter citrus (I think oranges) in soy milk/bitter almond custard, fennel, and aloe. This tastes like tofu with ginger syrup dim sum, pretty good.

Radishes poached in whey, kyo-na zuke (pickled/salted collared greens), chrysanthemum leaf, homemade butter. Reminds me of tabouli. Tastes terrible without that butter

Flaxseed bread with homemade butter.

Mesquite-smoked Gulf Cobia with red savoy cabbage, and a roll of mustards and pickles. Good dish. The mustard/pickle rolls are similar to the ones I've had at Fukuda for their shabu shabu.

Layers of scarlet damsel and harukei turnips on top of kombu (kelp) served with farm egg. Terrible dish.

Charred zamboni raabs wrapped in kohlrabi with elephant garlic emulsion and cured gulf blue runner. Translation: Chinese broccoli wrapped in a string made of turnips with a garlic dip. As pathetic as this dish looks, this was incredibly good and one of my few faves here.

Wagyu sirloin, beef sausage, beets, and offal sauce. The sirloin was not tender, terrible. Sausage was meh, lacking in flavor. The burnt beets were good, like bacon. The ketchup made of organ meats was kinda weird. Made this dish look bloodier than it should've been.

Stew of fermented vegetables, fermented kale, crispy braised kale, and horseradish dumplings. It's like a cross between a fermented vegetable stew I can get readily at Xiong's on Bellaire and the kale from Olive Garden's Toscana soup. I couldn't finish this dish.

Homemade butterfingers. Picture a slightly saltier Butterfingers. There were 2 other desserts before this, but my wife was angry about me taking pics since nobody else in the restaurant was doing this. Mine was a honey cake with honey-soaked carrots...soooo good! Wife and kid had chocolate mousse, Olive oil ganache, and pickles. They loved it, I hated it, felt like I was eating a bowl of Cocoa Puffs except I wasn't going cuckoo over it.

In general, I was not too impressed with the plating of the dishes. Wasn't bad, but I was expecting a more whimsical take on plating like at Pass&Provisions.

Many of the dishes were reminiscent of common Asian dishes. The raab was nothing more than Chinese broccoli. The kale soup had fermented vegetables commonly used in many Chinese and Vietnamese soups. The soy/almond custard was not too far removed from the tofu/ginger syrup snack found at many dim sum restaurants.

The menu is heavily focused on vegetables which can be a problem if you're a carnivore like myself.

With all the fanfare of the restaurant, had a hard time whether to consider it fine dining? If it's to be considered as such, I would've expected the service to be on par with The Pass, Triniti, or Mark's as opposed to say Dolce Vita for instance.

The price of the menu is very reasonable. Food wasn't bad at all, but wasn't blown away. While Oxheart is putting Houston on the national map for American dining, I don't see what all the buzz and hype is about. Pass&Provisions has a much better repertoire IMO.

My wife's assessment: glorified Souper Salad. Ouch...

Oxheart | 1302 Nance Street, Houston 77002 | 832-830-9592 | oxhearthouston.com

Oxheart on Urbanspoon


Tom Nguyen grew up in SW Houston and currently resides in Conroe. He's been eating escargots since he was 2. He describes himself as the typical Asian who photographs everything he eats and proclaims it to the Woodlands Area Foodies. He's also a BBQ snob who's been known to carry Corkscrew BBQ brisket in his pocket, and a pho nazi, Tom also likes to walk around with his shirt off, and hates balut.


  1. That chuck of wagyu sirloin looked terrible to me. In my experience with wagyu, the fat is marbled throughout the slab, not lumped at one end. I'm not surprised it was tough.

  2. First, I must correct you. Oxheart is not in Eado. It is in the Warehouse District. That being said, I respect the fact that Oxheart is not a restaurant for everyone. However, I have a difficult time believing the credibility of a critic when they do two things I view as real errors. The first thing is when the critic inaccurately describes the food. Having eaten many of the dishes described in this post, some of the descriptions were simply wrong, which I feel does a disservice to the reader and the restaurant. The second thing that may be more of a personal pet peeve is when there is no real critique of a dish. When the only thing you tell me in regards to how you feel about a dish is "terrible dish", it doesn't tell me much about the flavor on the plate or you as a critic. The same goes for absurd things such as "tastes like paint." I doubt you've eaten much paint, so that line just makes me feel like the critic doesn't have anything constructive to say.

    1. Ditto. And so much more. Also, I love the plating, especially of the one the blogger hated. the photos on the other hand... Beyond all that, the constant forced comparisons to other restaurants/dishes seem to make the review more of a "look at how much I know" than an actual fair review. Blah

  3. Edible finger paint tastes fairly bland, much like the "terrible dish" in question. I did not "hate" the plating, but I felt underwhelmed. Expectations unmet.

    1. I'm curious what your expectations were. If you read any/all of the reviews you mention had been written about the restaurant, I'm not sure why you'd expect it to be like The Pass. Oxheart itself has made no claims to be that type of restaurant, and I see no real similarities between the two besides the fact that both have set tasting menus. Personally, I enjoy a lot of different types of places, but try to approach each one with the mindset of what the meal is intended to be. I've never gone to Oxheart expecting it to be The Pass or Mark's. That would be like going to see a Wes Anderson movie expecting a Spielberg vibe.

  4. I wonder if Justin Yu is a foodie? I wonder what he thinks?

  5. A counterpoint to the gentleman from Conroe. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/10/dining/reviews/making-houston-a-dining-destination.html?_r=0

  6. Chef Justin Yu responded to this review via Twitter last night, very graciously. He clarified one thing for me, concerning the wagyu beef:

    "The chunk of fat is bc it's sirloin. Kind of it's calling card. The ranch is different and special to our area. Love it" ... "btw that wagyu is a little bit of a misnomer. Grass-fed, not treated like Kobe-style. Less marbling, but I love the flavor"

    I don't think any of us enter a restaurant without expectations, and with all the media adoration that Oxheart has received, expectations are often rather high.

    Apparently Tom wasn't the only diner at Oxheart who wasn't blown away his experience. On UrbanSpoon, Oxheart has a 71% approval rating, so a good number of customers have been less than impressed. That's the nature of the restaurant business, especially when the chef is doing something as out-of-the-ordinary as is happening at Oxheart, and the expectations are so very high.

    Comparisons to The Pass are inevitable. Both are among the hottest new restaurants in town, and both are built around tasting menus. Some might not find it to be a fair comparison, but when determining where to spend one's dining dollars for a special meal, both Oxheart and The Pass should be on the short list for a foodie in Houston.

    1. I don't mind comparing The Pass to Oxheart. Both serve tasting menus, both have received a lot of press attention and most people will spend a similar amount of money to dine at both (although probably a little more at The Pass). Time, interest and stomach capacity are limited for most people, and they'll probably choose to dine at one OR the other. They are pretty different restaurants, though, and it doesn't surprise me that someone might really enjoy one and not the other.

      That said, nothing that Tom wrote changes my opinion that Oxheart is the best restaurant in Houston. Different strokes and all that.

    2. As I read your remark concerning the wagyu posted on the 26th, my first thought was "does this guy even know what the sirloin entails?" Chef Yu was gracious in his response. My immediate reaction wasn't quite so proper. I find it a bit concerning that you find it proper to criticize something that you have no idea about, just spouting random ideas with little to no background research.

      Online rating resources just are far too inaccurate of a barometer, especially considering the diversity of Houston.

    3. Anon, my issue was with the lack of marbling. I've never seen wagyu that wasn't heavily marbled throughout. I understand that sirloin has a fat cap; it just seemed odd for a piece of wagyu not to be heavily marbled, yet to be fatty in areas. Chef Yu explained this on Twitter.

  7. I am not going to parse your dislike of Oxheart too finely. It's not a restaurant for everyone; no restaurant ever is. But I hope the people reading this have some perspective on the quality of the writing and the points you make. You could say Oxheart doesn't measure up to the now closed Ubuntu, where the chef worked and which draws many influences. Or that it doesn't quite capture the focus on ingredients at In De Wulf in Belgium or the atmosphere of Relae, which served as the inspiration for the service style and feel. Instead you draw comparisons to random collection of places like Fukuda, Mark's, Dolce Vita and... Souper Salad?

    Sometimes you just don't have a perspective to comment intelligently and it's best not to. I have none of the context to truly understand the foods from African countries (despite the ample opportunity to learn about them in Houston), so you won't find me holding forth on ways Affriko failed to live up to my expectations and didn't measure up to Luther's BBQ. I could say those things, but I'd come across as a bit of a tool.

    Oddly enough, you seem to pick up that Oxheart employs a lot of Asian techniques and influences, which most people miss. I can't think of too many American restaurants that cook at the level Oxheart is aiming for which do the same. Even in places where the chefs are of Asian descent, preparations often skewed towards French techniques and fail to truly reflect their lineage. When they do, as is the case with David Chang media frenzy, they become breakout hits. This is an astute, significant observation, but you make it as if to dismiss it as a run of the mill coincidence.

    Hope you don't take any of this too personally. This post had every opportunity to be better informed and interesting than it was - that's really the only point I wanted to make.