Justin Yu Roars Back With Theodore Rex
Foodies freaked when the famously fastidious chef closed Oxheart. But there’s much to like about its easygoing successor, Theodore Rex.
This story originally appeared in the December 2017 issue with the headline “Justin Yu Simmers Down.”
There was panic in the streets, followed by a stampede for reservations, when Justin Yu announced last year that he would be closing Oxheart. What?! Close the restaurant that had just won him a James Beard award? Shutter one of the most innovative and edgy restaurants in not just Houston but the country?! It was only five years old! Was Yu insane? No, he wasn’t insane. He was exhausted. In a startlingly honest blog post, he wrote that when he started, back in 2012, “All I wanted to do was cook my little itty bitty heart out. It didn’t matter how it happened, if it included destroying everything in my path . . . The whole project was incredibly narcissistic.” True to his word, he closed Oxheart, on March 15, 2017. Then he took six months off to regroup (and open a bar with Bobby Heugel, Better Luck Tomorrow). On October 6 he opened his new restaurant. The location was the same, but the jokey name, Theodore Rex, signaled a far different direction, less uptight, more embracing. And in no time, curious customers were once again clamoring for one of the 28 seats in the quirky little building near a freeway in downtown Houston.
At sunset on a recent evening, my friend Mimi and I arrived breathlessly, just in time to take advantage of happy-hour wine prices. Reinforced, we looked around to assess the transformation. Honestly, it wasn’t that different, though it did feel a bit roomier. Red, white, and blue quilted banquettes stood out against tall brick walls; metal light fixtures floated overhead like small, friendly UFOs. As before, the blond-wood tables had hidden drawers containing extra flatware (now in a swanky gold finish). New were drawer pulls in the form of ceramic dinosaur heads, a touch of Yu’s typical whimsy. When I talked to him a few days later, he reminded me that he had named the place after his nephew, Theodore. “I added ‘Rex,’ ” he said, “because I thought it would be hilarious to have a restaurant abbreviated ‘T. Rex.’ ”
While the decorative changes may be subtle, the changes in the bill of fare are profound. Out is the tasting menu; in is a simple à la carte format. Out are the cryptic lists of ingredients and the multipart techniques. In are descriptions you can pretty much understand on one reading. Asian emphases have made room for more-European ones, thanks both to the larger role of chef de cuisine Jason White and to Yu’s desire to shake things up. Out is the feeling of attending services at a temple of gastronomy; in is the feeling of going to an approachable restaurant that happens to be rather serious.
And the food? It’s better than the last time I ate at Oxheart, almost a year ago. Oxheart’s philosophy was always plants first. Theodore Rex gives animals an equal role. As tidily wrapped as a Christmas gift, a block of beautifully cooked golden tilefish came tucked into a collard leaf as verdant as a spruce branch. After the first bite, I wanted something sweet, like onions, or lush, like a French butter sauce. After the second bite, I realized that that would have masked both the fish and the lemony sauce vierge, a bracing blend of diced green tomatoes along with Japanese turnips and their greens.
A svelte breast of guinea hen continued the animal revival, and here too, the brothy, creamy sauce had a blast of vegetal flavor: petite Persian cucumbers circled the bowl, with shaved onion, crushed parsley, and chives upping the ante. The meat was gorgeously cooked. The same care had been taken with a roasted Texas wagyu chuck steak, a sextet of deep-pink slices dabbed with an almost meaty-tasting fermented-black-radish relish.
Despite the animal orientation, members of the plant kingdom still stand on their own. Beautiful Charleston Gold rice had been paired with fat butter beans, a combination that was enormously satisfying. Even better were the pavé potatoes, a.k.a. scalloped potatoes from heaven, their feathery brown edges crisped from the oven. But the highest and best use of a vegetable (even though it’s really a fruit) was the signature tomato toast. A cross between Spain’s pan con tomate and Italy’s bruschetta, it’s already a legend in its own time. On our shared plate, a crown of red and yellow cherry tomato halves sat atop a garlicky tomato fondant slathered on fine-grained pain de mie, all spangled with bright green basil and parsley. And speaking of fruits, it would be criminal not to mention another appetizer, chilled, slightly chewy East Texas muscadine grapes nestled up to luxurious house-made ricotta.
When Oxheart was alive, desserts were one of the things everyone anticipated. But pastry wizard Karen Man, Yu’s former wife, is not working there now, and Yu candidly admits he hasn’t had the time to get a handle on sweets. There were only two on the menu when I visited, and they were, um, very basic and frankly boring: milk-chocolate ice cream atop spicy house-made apple butter and ripe persimmons with a spritz of citrusy calamansi juice. But I was there on the restaurant’s eighth day in business, so I’m willing to wait and see what they come up with.
Most people have midlife crises in their fifties. Justin Yu had his in his early thirties. And perhaps because he wrote about it publicly, he seems to have given permission to others to be candid with him. It’s been eye-opening, he says: “Some people have admitted to me, ‘I loved Oxheart, but I didn’t want to spend three hours eating dinner!’ Or they have said, ‘I loved Oxheart, but I couldn’t take my parents there—and I didn’t want to spend three hours with them!’ ” In the end, Oxheart had an incredible run and went out at the top of its game. Tastes change, and it was time for a new direction. As Yu himself says, “Plenty of days I miss Oxheart, but I’m so happy I’m at T. Rex.”