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
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.
We're unabashed fans of the food Chef Austin Simmons creates at Hubbell & Hudson Bistro. From his incredibly creative seafood presentations to his world-class burgers, we've not seen a misstep from this talented young chef.
While the media was socializing, the culinary team had converted the beautiful residential kitchen into a line worthy of four-star restaurant. Homebuilders brag about commercial-grade kitchens, but Pasternak Custom Homes truly delivered.
The hungry mob was seated, and Chef Austin presented his first course, escolar served with jalapeño marmalade, and a ponzu bouillabaisse. As CultureMap's Eric Sandler quipped, "Just like mom used to make".
Next the chef introduced a beef course, but not just any beef - A5 grade Japanese Wagyu. It was topped with shaved perigord truffles, and accented with artichoke, anise and peppercorn. The beef was superbly tender and indulgently marbled, and the earthy truffles elevated the savory beefy flavor to even greater heights.
A unique cheese course appeared next. After the bold, strong Wagyu, Chef Austin juxtaposed a light, airy goat cheese puree, accented with hyperlocal Woodlands honey, winter truffle, almond, lavender, and cranberry.
Desert was served shortly thereafter. A deconstructed pallet of yuzu, green tea, miso, shoo, sable, and cilantro. At the chef's instruction we combined these wildly individual flavors into a coherent whole. It was hard work. Hard, delicious work.
Finally the chef presented petite petit-fours. They were not your typical cookies; flavors of pink peppercorn, soy, caramel and dark chocolate were blended and perfused, and the result demonstrates the formidable chops of Katrina Autem, the pastry chef.
Chef Austin's culinary team did a superlative job delivering eight courses of innovative, technique-driven cuisine in a residential kitchen they'd never worked in before. The evening progressed flawlessly, a tribute to the hard work of Executive Sous Chef Lance Criswell, Pastry Chef Katrina Autem, Sommelier Tanya Hinson, and the rest of the Hubbell & Hudson team.
Of course, now that the chef's formidable skills have been put on display in the heart of Houston, we predict that a table at Hubbell & Hudson Bistro will get even tougher to snare. Make your reservations early, folks.
Our thanks to Hubbell & Hudson, Pasternak Custom Homes, and John Daugherty Realtors for making this event possible.
We've made no bones about being fans of Crust Pizza Co., the independent pizza empire that has announced the expansion to a third location in the Woodlands. Their focus on fresh ingredients, innovative recipes, and rock-solid consistency makes them our go-to place for a great pizza.
We were saddened to hear of the closing of the venerable b4-u-eat.com website, one of the oldest food review sites covering Houston since the mid-90's. They'd survived the rise of Citysearch and Yelp, and continued with their bare-bones format and ad-free approach.
Thanks for all your hard work, guys. You'll be missed.
Update: More Information!
WHAT: The 2nd Annual Houston Barbecue Festival will celebrate and recognize what is unique about Houston barbecue. Specifically, we want to:
Recognize the talent, hard work, and dedication of the owners and pitmasters that make Houston barbecue great.
Make the citizens of Houston (and Texas, and the U.S., etc.) aware of the long history of barbecue here and that the quality of Houston barbecue is comparable to other regional styles of barbecue.
Make Houstonians true connoisseurs of barbecue by offering samples of great barbecue so they can choose to patronize those barbecue joints committed to only the highest quality of barbecue.
Celebrate the diversity of Houston barbecue by including the many styles of barbecue found here.
WHERE: Reliant Park, Purple Lot. Parking entrance on South Main Street.
COST: General Admission ($50) includes entry into the festival and unlimited sample portions from each participating Houston barbecue joint. VIP Admission ($90) includes entry into the festival one hour early (at noon) and unlimited sample portions from each participating Houston barbecue joint. A T-shirt and one (1) drink ticket are also included. To ensure a quality event for everyone involved, ticket sales are limited. All tickets sold in advance, online at http://houbbq.com. No ticket sales at the door. A bar (beer and wine) and live music will also be included.
About the Houston Barbecue Festival
In its second year, the Houston Barbecue Festival will build on the success of the inaugural festival by including more Houston barbecue joints for a larger audience of Houston barbecue lovers. Expecting 20-24 barbecue joints and 2000-3000 guests, the event has moved to Reliant Park, one of the most prestigious and recognizable event venues in Houston.
This year's festival will feature most, if not all, of last year's list of the who's who of Houston's best barbecue. Currently confirmed are: Blake’s BBQ, The Brisket House, Brooks’ Place BBQ, CorkScrew BBQ, Fainmous BBQ, Gatlin’s BBQ, Gerardo’s, Killen's BBQ, Lenox Bar-B-Que, Pizzitola’s Bar-B-Cue, Ray’s BBQ Shack, and Tin Roof BBQ.
Additionally, the festival will include a few newcomers to the Houston barbecue scene: Feges BBQ, Oak Leaf Smokehouse, and Pappa Charlie's Barbeque. Baker's Ribs, a veteran of the Houston barbecue scene, will also be a new participant this year.
Also new for 2014 will be a lineup of select out-of-town barbecue guests who will be rolling into Houston to showcase their barbecue side-by-side with Houston's best. More details on this at a later date.
Additionally, staff from Texas A&M University's BBQ Genius Counter will be answering attendees' questions about all things barbecue, backyard or otherwise.
Returning as a founding sponsor, Texas Original Pits will have a selection of their Houston-made smokers, grills, and fire pits for sale.
The Houston Barbecue Festival has partnered with Vita-Living, Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit agency in Houston, Texas that has supported people with disabilities for over 30 years. They currently serve almost 500 clients in seven counties through their residential, case management and foster companion care services. Vita-Living is recognized as a leading proponent of integrated community living and an expert in the care of individuals with complex disabilities and behavioral challenges.
"We were looking for a partner in an under-served charitable area," explained Chris Reid, festival organizer. "Public funding for care of those with disabilities has decreased considerably in recent years. So, on behalf of the Houston Barbecue Festival staff, restaurants, volunteers, and sponsors, we are happy to contribute a portion of all tickets sales and sponsorships to help Vita-Living in this important mission."
The needs of Vita-Living’s clients will not go away. They continue to be vulnerable throughout their lives and require lifelong services. For that reason, 88 cents out of every dollar donated to the agency goes towards the lifelong care of Houstonians with disabilities.
"I'm so happy that Vita-Living can support the local flavor of barbecue in this great city," said Jillian Day, Director of Development at Vita-Living. "We're very grateful for the opportunity to partner with another organization that represents the best of what this city offers; namely, opportunity and innovation. It will also be a great way to recognize our volunteers since everyone loves great food."
OK, BBQ fans. The event you've been waiting for is coming. The second annual Houston BBQ Festival is on its way, and tickets go on sale February 17.
The event will be held on Sunday, April 6, from 1pm to 5pm at Reliant Park.
The new venue for the festival is Reliant Park, which will allow a bit more elbow room - the 2013 inaugural festival attracted huge crowds and tested the capacity of the venue.
|Scene from 2013 Houston BBQ Festival|
The 2014 lineup hasn't been announced, but participating in the 2013 festival were Blake's BBQ, The Brisket House, Brooks' Place BBQ, Burns BBQ, Corkscrew BBQ, Fainmous BBQ, Gary Burns Old Fashioned Pit BBQ, Gatlin's BBQ, Gerardo's, Killen's BBQ, Lenox Bar-B-Que, Pizzitola's Bar-B-Cue, Ray's BBQ Shack, Tin Roof BBQ, and Virgie's BBQ.
If you attended the 2013 festival, keep an eye on your e-mail: Rumor has it that a special offer for early tickets (at a discount!) will be sent to 2013 participants.
For more details, keep an eye on the official festival website.
In the breakneck-paced Houston food scene, new restaurants often appear, get hot, cool off, and ultimately disappear in a matter of months. Universal foodie acclaim doesn't prevent this vicious cycle -- witness the demise of media darlings like Feast and Bootsie's.
Certain parts of town seem to present even more challenges. Inner Westheimer has tremendous competition. The Heights has archaic liquor laws. Downtown can offer a strong lunch business, but is deserted on weeknights, and this combination has thwarted great restaurants like Samba Grille, Laidback Manor, and other high-profile, critical success stories.
Yet some restaurants endure, and do so for decades. Instead of embracing the hottest food trends, they find a formula that satisfies their customers, and they refine and perfect it.
A textbook example is China Garden, located downtown across the street from the Toyota Center garage. China Garden has been serving Chinese-American food for lunch and dinner from this location since the 1970's, and we've heard reports of good food from trusted friends.
We ventured downtown for lunch to try to find out why China Garden has thrived so long in the tough downtown restaurant market.
Stepping inside was like stepping into a time machine set to 1985. The space is charmingly dated, with nary a window to be seen in the main dining area.
And yes, that's a bar in the dining room, something we don't normally see in today's sanitized concept restaurants.
Service was charmingly old-fashioned as well. Regulars were greeted warmly by the staff, and newbies (like us) were made to feel welcome immediately. The house was full, and the staff was in constant motion, efficiently serving the hungry crowd.
Guided by a friend's recommendation, we tried two different classic choices - sweet and sour chicken, and spicy chicken, AKA General Tso's. Somehow we resisted the throwback Chop Suey that was the first offering on the lunch menu; some childhood memories are best left unrevisited.
While we were waiting, a small basket appeared without explanation, holding something handmade and fried.
We bit in, and discovered the China Garden version of hushpuppies. These were bite sized versions of the fried biscuits that used to be found at every Chinese-American restaurant, but that we've not run across in many years. They were tasty and slightly heavy.
Our entrees appeared shortly. First up was the Spicy / General Tso's Chicken.
Served on the classic dragon-pattern dishes, the slightly crispy breaded chicken pieces were tossed with onions, scallions, and small mild peppers, then dressed in a brown sauce with a confident bite of freshly cracked black pepper. Not spicy by modern standards, it was flavorful with only slightest hint of heat. Served with a barebones but tasty scoop of fried rice and a gigantic old-school egg roll, this dish was considerably superior to the generic stuff served at most Chinese-American spots. The sauce had slightly softened the crust, but enough stiffness remained to make it a very enjoyable lunch.
Next up was the sweet and sour chicken.
This dish was less complex, and less successful. The sweet and sour sauce was more like a honey glaze, with no sourness to be found at all. The chicken's breading had gotten soft and lost most of its texture; we suspect a large batch had been sitting in the sauce for a while. If you like sweet chicken dishes you may enjoy this, but we found the spicy chicken to be a much more satisfying dish.
As we were taking the photos of the food, our waitress came by with a smile, asking why we were photographing our food. I honestly don't think she'd seen that done before, which is an amazing concept in 2014, but this reinforces the fact that China Garden is well off the map for critics, bloggers, and the majority of foodies.
That's a shame, because there's a lot to like at this Houston classic, as the busy lunch crowds attest. If you like Americanized Chinese food, give 'em a try.
China Garden | 1602 Leeland, Houston TX 77002 | 713-652-0745
As our readers know, Houston's vibrant food scene isn't limited to Tex-Mex, BBQ, and burgers. As our nation's most multicultural city, dining options span the list from African to Vietnamese, with pretty much everything in between.
|Banh Mi at Beck's Prime|