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FOOD GURU MICHAEL POLLAN would be a fan of Oxheart. Admittedly, I haven’t asked him, but his famous imperative—“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants”—squares with the philosophy behind the highly anticipated vegetable-centric restaurant from husband-and-wife chefs Justin Yu and Karen Man. (In case you find yourself a little confused at this point, “oxheart” refers to varietals of carrot, cabbage, and tomato; of course, spelled as two words, it also means exactly what you think it means, but I’m getting ahead of myself.) What excited me most when I visited the tiny, thirty-seat foodie enclave near downtown Houston two months ago, aside from the fascinating, complex food on the plate, was the “mostly plants” part of Pollan’s hope for the future. Could it be—after several years of pork belly, offal, and bone marrow grabbing star billing at restaurants everywhere—that forward-looking chefs are turning over a new leaf?
Given the hype about Oxheart, I fretted that I was expecting too much when I walked into the tall space with its gauzy curtains, creaky old doors, and reclaimed wood tables set against stark white walls. I needn’t have worried. With few exceptions, Yu’s creations trumped anything I had anticipated. Consider his spinach salad, for instance. To begin, he chose okame, which is a thick-leafed Japanese hybrid, first steaming it lightly over jasmine tea, then placing it atop a dab of miso aioli. On the side he put two grains, quinoa in a light shallot vinaigrette and puffed wheat berries. The result was a new spin on that old favorite, wilted spinach salad, with a crunch. In another starter (pictured), he arranged gorgeous whole Amish snap pea pods in a bowl like a still life, then poured over them a savory clear “tea” of button mushroom juices. The bright, sweet peas and the umami-rich mushroom broth were the perfect example of opposites attracting.
Yu’s vegetables occupy center stage, but the menu is not totally vegetarian. My friends and I also had heavenly plump Gulf oysters steamed in their shells and drizzled with a luxe blend of browned butter and the juice of red spring onions, and meat eaters were offered—wait for it—ox heart. Poached sous vide until tender, then seared and served as medallions atop a rootsy, mustard-tinged sauce of beets, sunchokes, and coffee, it tasted like beef—say, a really intense, dry-aged New York strip.
It’s easy to be seduced by the main courses at Oxheart, but it was dessert that—shockingly—made me start to question Pollan’s rules for eating. Composed of a raisin-studded heirloom-carrot mousse on a hazelnut dacquoise (meringue cake) bisected by an emerald-green gelée of sweetened cilantro leaf and coriander seed, Man’s gemlike creation lasted about three minutes after it was placed on our table. Eat “not too much” of that, Mr. Pollan? Sorry. Not gonna happen. Beer & wine. 1302 Nance (832-830-8592). Dinner Thur–Mon 5:30–10. Closed Tue & Wed. Reservations suggested. $$$$ (prix fixe $49 & $75)