Restaurant Review

Revisiting Oxheart and Underbelly After Back-to-Back Wins at the Nation's "Food Oscars"

Catching up with Houston’s two most recent James Beard Award–winning restaurants brings mixed results.

By Alice Levitt July 18, 2016 Published in the August 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Crystal dumplings at Oxheart

"What kind of restaurant are you going to tonight?” my mother asked.

“The kind that plates with tweezers,” I responded, an answer that told her everything she needed to know about Oxheart, or so I thought.

I made my first visit there just weeks after chef/owner Justin Yu took home the 2016 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest. His time spent staging at Noma—the Danish restaurant that many consider to be the world’s finest, and also abrasively pretentious—had led me to expect fussy plates designed to be more cerebral than delicious.

But I couldn’t have been more wrong. The moment I sat down at the horseshoe-shaped counter, I fell into a conversation with servers and cooks happy to chat about food and drink under the watchful eye of one of the restaurant’s many maneki-neko (lucky cats), which smiled down from a shelf, its plump neck draped with Yu’s Beard medal.

It felt a bit like a diner, except grizzled waitresses calling me “hon’” were replaced by a smiling young woman in a leather apron expounding on the assets of a particular vintage of Nigl Freiheit Grüner Veltliner. And instead of heavy meat and potatoes, there were vegetable-focused plates that struck my palate with diverse, well-considered flavors in a multi-pronged attack.

The meal began with crystal dumplings in a shallow, handmade bowl. Most of us know har gow in its classic form, stuffed with shrimp, but Yu’s were instead filled with unaccountably meaty-tasting braised greens. The dish’s clear broth, though, made it a treasure: a turnip base tasting purely and incontestably like what it was, dotted with almost microscopically thin raw stems and prehistoric-looking fronds of dill, awash in a mellow wave of jasmine tea. It had all the intellectualism I was expecting, but was even more satisfying to eat than to ponder.

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Oxheart chef Justin Yu with mung bean pancake

A crispy crêpe made from mung bean flour, stuffed with spring alliums, potato skins and miso, made me think of Hanukkah latkes. When I told Yu this, he said that Vietnamese guests often compare it to their native rice pancakes, bánh xèo. Apparently, whatever your heritage, the half moon, presented with thin, elegantly arranged rounds of pickled daikon, fried onions and microgreens, evokes a sense of home.

Unexpectedly, it’s creature comforts that demonstrate the greatest virtues of Yu and his team. Two hot dinner rolls from baker Karen Man, studded with seeds and oats, were irresistibly sour with the fermentation that leavened them. A dollop of soft, salty butter on the same plate made it a rare thing in Houston: a memorable bread-and-butter experience.

Yu’s porridge of Texas grains, far from a depressing bowl of gruel, was even better. Spiced with French-style curry blend vadouvan, the rib-sticking bowl of carbs gained further élan from juicy pieces of navel orange, a chiffonade of cilantro and chunks of cauliflower. Though undeniably smart and creative, the dish also functioned as unabashed, if surprising, comfort food.

The six courses ended with a soft-serve-like mound of crème fraîche cremeux dotted with lime zest that hid preserved strawberries from last year’s harvest alongside a pair of the same berries glazed with mushroom and sorghum for a mind-bending umami finish.

Typically, I expect a meal that complex to be an all-night affair. My Oxheart experience was over within two hours. To me, that spoke to an admirable lack of pretension: Courses didn’t come at an overwhelming lightning speed, but they did appear just when I wanted them, without the vast chasms of time that sometimes elapse at fine-dining establishments.

Restaurateurs often speak about the theater involved in running an upscale eatery. At Oxheart, the only performance is the one from the kitchen. It’s a simple space, devoted to people who love food and wish to eat it without the pressure of “dinner and a show.” And if guests want to talk about how one prepares a basil-kombu broth, their friendly neighborhood James Beard winner will be happy to assist.

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Underbelly's cha ca snapper

Underbelly, on the other hand, doesn't shrink from a poppy presentation. At Houston’s other recent James Beard winner (chef/owner Chris Shepherd took home the Best Chef: Southwest award in 2014), there’s glass around the charcuterie case to show what’s curing. Pickles and preserves line shelves that buffet the dining room. Menus are tucked into repurposed books, while the wine list opens with a short graphic novel featuring cartoons of Shepherd and his pal, rapper Bun B.

It’s all very impressive—if only the food and service lived up to the sheen of the design. The restaurant’s goal is to combine the international influences that make Houston’s dining scene unique, with Southern and Creole offerings sitting alongside dishes that take their cues from East and Southeast Asia.

On my first visit, I got the cha ca snapper. By coincidence, I’d eaten an eye-opening cha cá thăng long, a traditional Vietnamese fish preparation, a couple of weeks before at Thien Thanh in Alief. For $13.25, I got a pile of crisp, turmeric-rubbed fish sizzling with dill in a cast iron pan, served with rice noodles, crunchy rice crackers, shrimp paste and a pile of herbs, which I mixed together myself.

At Underbelly, the same dish arrived already assembled in a comparatively small bowl. The fancy snapper that replaced Thien Thanh's catfish lacked both its powerful flavor and caramelization. Cabbage, pickled onions and raw scallions, meanwhile, replaced the aromatic herbs. I enjoyed the dish, although it paled in comparison to the other one, which would have been more forgivable had the bowl not set me back $36.

At least as far as service is concerned, the price tags on dishes at Underbelly aren’t buying you any hospitality. Each time I dined there, I was heartily welcomed, then ignored. Servers standing glassy-eyed in front of the open kitchen appeared to look right through me. The strange system of bringing out only one plate at a time also meant that at one meal, a friend and I picked at a $12 plate of broccoli for a long stretch before our order of Korean goat dumplings finally arrived.

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Korean goat dumplings at Underbelly

The dumplings’ strong whiff of wine told me this was not the gochujang-heavy tteokbokki I expected, though I admired the innovation and the relatively reasonable $14 price tag. I enjoyed the bowl of crispy rice cakes, if not as much as the coterie of Underbelly fans seems to. It’s not one of the best dishes in Houston, nor is it the best tteokbokki, but I hate to hold that against it.

The pork schnitzel I tried during lunch service, however, won me over. Perhaps because I was reminded that there’s only a handful of German restaurants in Houstonia, I happily ignored the fact that the pork had become a bit soggy from sitting too long on its base of earthy, caraway-braised red cabbage. It was apparent that the meat was of excellent quality, and I downed it with gusto.

There are certainly other good things about the restaurant: The charcuterie plate, mostly whole-muscle cures when I tried it, also included bologna and a tangy house mustard that I would buy in bulk. The ciabatta, hot from the oven, was also deserving of praise, although its pairing with Indian-spiced blackberry butter was unappealing—and it cost a whopping $7.

As laudable as I find the fact that Shepherd’s Mutt City approach may open the minds of diners who rarely travel outside the loop to taste Houston at large, I couldn’t help but feel like his curation was actually a disservice to fledgling foodies.

In many ways, Underbelly is Oxheart’s polar opposite: an expensive International Food 101 course for diners with more money than taste. The air of pretension at times felt choking, whether I was pushing away the house cream soda after one flat, syrupy sip or wincing at the raw, tough dough lining the attractively brittle-topped vinegar pie. Those of us who truly love food don’t need to be told what to like. Just feed us something that will open our eyes, and we’ll take it from there.

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