Katharine Shilcutt's 10 Favorite Dishes in Houston
3. Smoked beef leg with aspic at Oxheart
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt
You don't come to Oxheart for a steak dinner and a nice bottle of Cab. You come for an experience - and only you can determine whether or not that experience is ultimately worth it. This is what New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells meant when he recently wrote that Oxheart is "one of the growing number of places around the country that are rearranging our notions of what fine dining means."
Oxheart is not simply one of the best restaurants in the city, but also one of the most distinctly Houstonian. It challenges people -- both within and without -- to reconsider the way they view our rapidly-growing city, or simply the way they view sunflower seeds or tomatoes. It takes all comers with an egalitarian attitude, and offers civility and culture in an unexpected setting. It's stubbornly idiosyncratic and committed to a vision all its own. There's sprawl here, too, but in the extended rhythm of a seven-course meal instead of the physical space itself, which is all whitewashed walls and tall, airy ceilings.
My favorite dish to come out of my visits at Oxheart is one that challenged me the most: cubed beef under a large, jiggly coin of aspic. I've always viewed aspic warily, noting with disdain that there's a reason the consomme-based gelatin hasn't been a prominent dish since before I was born. But you could very well be witnessing the rebirth of aspic at Oxheart right now, thanks to a dish of smoked beef leg and kombu aspic that's currently showing on the $79 tasting menu.
The tiny cubes of cold-smoked beef are served tartare-style, except that there's no mustard or raw eggs to be found here. Instead, the sweet-hot spike of mustard is replaced with a scattering of brightly flavored Vietnamese herbs and vegetables: basil, rau ram, cucumber. Acid comes courtesy of lime juice, and all of it is bound up in a crystal-clear aspic with a final sea-sweet, briny note of kelp from that kombu. It's a truly masterful display of how to combine so many disparate influences into one dish, elevating each one in turn and leaving the diner gobsmacked by it all.