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Restaurants

Justin Yu’s Encore is Brilliant

Star Chef’s New Houston Restaurant Lives Up to All the Hype — and Makes the Simple Sing

BY // 07.10.18

There is at the moment a seemingly simple dish at a restaurant in Houston, one you would perhaps skip over when deciding what to order for your meal. It’s beans and rice, a bowl of beans and rice. It resides on the menu alongside pickled cantaloupe in a cold melon broth, Gulf snapper with Bloomsdale spinach pistou, and roast strip loin of Texas Wagyu.

Beans and rice? I like a good bowl of  them, you say to yourself, but with such a stellar lineup, I’ll pass for the pommes paillasson.

Well, if you find yourself at Theodore Rex anytime soon, and “Charleston Gold Rice and Butterbeans cooked in soft butter, with crushed garden leaves” is on the menu, do not ignore it. I have ordered the dish four times since May, and not a day has gone by that I’ve not found myself craving the tastes that come in that bowl.

It’s humble in appearance, this dish, at least at first glance, but when the crisped rice mingles with the tender grains, and the warm and rich butter and greens (one night it was basil, oh so peppery and bright) and earthy beans, all of it, combine, comforting beauty reigns.

This is the way to begin your evening at Theodore Rex, the Houston spot already being recognized as one of the Best New Restaurants in America.

This dish is the way to begin your meal at Theodore Rex.

Justin Yu, the owner and chef of Theodore Rex, has, of course, been on the national culinary radar for a while now. His famed — and dearly departed — Oxheart won over the hearts and minds of diners and critics far and wide when it opened in 2012. (Yes, there was some grumbling from individuals who proudly stated that they left Oxheart hungry and drove directly to a Whataburger, so small and dainty were the courses in Yu’s tasting menu. But perhaps this sort of person was in the wrong place to begin with.)

The accolades and awards poured in for Oxheart, and the difficulty of securing a reservation became local lore.

Then it was gone, over. The Last Dish was carried from the Oxheart kitchen on March 15, 2017, Yu having decided that tasting menu-restaurants had finite life spans and are perhaps too tough a sell in Houston. And, as he told Robb Report in November of 2017, perhaps the powders had become too many in number:

My feeling towards it is we started ending up doing things like making powders with zucchini and powdering a whole bunch of things that would end up generally tasting pretty similar, like powdered collard greens and powdered skins of cucumbers. In the context of a tasting menu where you have all these little tiny bits and pieces of flavors, it generally gets lost in the mix, especially if you don’t have a very distinct set of products to choose from. It kind of gets muddy. The heart of the cooking is what I enjoyed the most, and I wanted to focus more on that, and I wasn’t being able to do that — mostly because there’s a $79 tasting menu for six portions plus bread.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s not very expensive throughout the country, but for Houstonians, asking anyone to drop $80 just on food just by walking into the door is tough, and I didn’t really want to do that anymore. It was kind of one of those things where I wanted to open up a restaurant that I wanted to go to every single week, and I’m hoping that’s one of those places.

Theodore Rex is what Yu opened in the old Oxheart space, and it decidedly is one of those places, a restaurant I’d gladly visit weekly. On my most recent evening there, I sat at the counter, which overlooks the small kitchen where Yu and his crew create. (I have also had dinner at a table in the restaurant’s dining room, an equally rewarding vantage point.)

I began with that rice and beans dish — which was a good as ever it was, with its various textures and rich flavors — and followed it with Tomato Toast, another small and epiphanic item that you will crave often after experiencing its wonder. It combines rye pain de mie, bright green herbs and onions, and some of the most delicately delicious tomatoes you’ve tasted. (Many pounds of the fruit are cooked down into a rich fondant, which is spread on the toast and then topped with cherry tomatoes from Finca Tres Robles.)

Relish the differing textures — slightly crispy bread, tangy and bright tomatoes, sensually smooth fondant — and chew slowly.

Pain de mie done perfectly … and those tomatoes are divine. The Tomato Toast at Theodore Rex is a memorable dish.

On earlier visits to Theodore Rex, I, in addition to the beans and rice, partook of a variety of dishes, including beef breast in a pickle-juice broth; baked semolina (Roman-style), with carrot escabeche, pecorino fondue, and honey; marinated Persian cucumbers with with warm ricotta, almonds, and mushrooms; and several takes on Texas Wagyu, both pieces of steak outstanding (cooked a confident medium-rare and infused with more flavor than seemed possible). Important note, something that makes dining at Yu’s restaurant even more appealing and satisfying: Everything on the menu can be shared, and you should do just that.

Earthy, with a fine touch of acid: beef breast in pickle-juice broth at Theodore Rex.

The beef breast was a bracing and rich experience, and the earthiness of the meat played well with the acidic broth and salty aged Cheddar. A large spoonful of this was exciting and comforting at the same time, and took me back to a restaurant on New York’s Lower East Side, a Romanian joint that served schmaltz and soda water and a similar beef dish, full of tender meat and juxtaposing amounts of saltiness, acidity, and creaminess.

Though the beef breast is not on Theodore Rex’s current menu, if it sounds good to you, order the Persian cucumber dish, which is available now. I did so on my recent visit, and it demonstrates Yu’s genius for subtlety.

Have you ever had slightly cooked Persian cucumbers with ricotta and almonds?

First, the cucumbers are intriguingly mellow and soft, both in taste and texture. Next, the rich and creamy ricotta and the oh-so-slightly-chewy and tangy mushrooms counterpoint the cucumbers, which are mild in a revealing way. Again, a spoonful of this creation will have you smiling to yourself, and perhaps shaking your head in appreciation.

Then there’s the soft semolina, which I’ve had on two occasions. I am a lover of Pecorino, and it stars here. The rounds of flour are baked, Roman-style, with crisp exteriors and warm, soft interiors. The fonduta delivers in the salty and rich categories, and the carrots, cooked in the escabeche style, add a slightly sweet touch.

In total, another surprising and palate-arousing mouthful, one that had us wanting more.

Carrots, semolina, and a percorino fonduta at Theodore Rex.

I cannot leave out the pakora-style oyster mushrooms (not currently on the menu, but hopefully to return), which came to the table hot and salty and crisp. I would eat them for breakfast, for a late-night snack, and for lunch and dinner (when they do begin their repeat performance, pair them with the Jean Lallement “Brut” on the restaurant’s wine list, and you’ll have nothing but happiness).

There’s also the Heritage chicken breast in a bowl with warm bibb lettuce dressed in a soft egg, with green garlic and preserved citrus. I would say that it is the only less-than-stellar thing I’ve ever ordered at Theodore Rex, with one qualifying note: If the chicken had been left out, I would passionately sing the dish’s praises, so satisfying was the lettuce/green garlic taste profile.

In fact, serve me five times the amount of soft and bracingly-flirting-with-bitterness lettuce and I’d be in a blissful state all evening. The problem here was that the chicken was bland. The skin is limp by the time it arrives, and the meat, though obviously from quality birds, is lacking flavor, at least one I was looking for. I spooned up every last drop of the egg broth and all of the lettuce, however, and did not look back.

Oh you lovely lettuce: Heritage chicken breast and bibb lettuce at Theodore Rex.

If you like steak, you need to experience what Yu is doing with them. The current menu features a roast strip loin of Texas Wagyu with turnips, which were ornately arranged in ribbons atop the meat. The version I had (on two previous visits) was a perfect medium-rare, served with braised greens. The steaks came to the table sliced on a platter, and were not disappointing in the slightest. Hot, charred in the best way, tender and reddish-pink and juicy on the inside.

More on the wine program here: Bridget Paliwoda takes care of it, and her relaxed approach to its composition is refreshing. You’ll find a magnum of Olivier Cousin’s “Pur Breton” ($133) — one of my all-time favorite wines — alongside Ganevat “L’Apero” ($88) and a Qupe Syrah ($39). Paliwoda’s collection will appeal to the more adventurous drinker as well as the “stay in my safe zone” types, a good thing.

When you come to the end of your meal at Theodore Rex, I implore you to say this aloud: Paris-Brest. If you are familiar with the French beauty made of pâte à choux and praline-flavored cream, you will have some idea of what you’ll be getting.

Still, your mind and tastebuds will be pleasantly blown by the way Yu fills his Paris-Brest with a completely decadent mixture of Swiss cheese cream and honey caramel. It’s sweet and savory and slightly funky (think of fermenting hay), and chances are you’ve never had anything like it.

Do get it, though, and if you share my taste, you’ll order it every time you visit Theodore Rex.

You want a knock-your-socks-off dessert? Order the Paris-Brest at Theodore Rex.

Yu has assembled great teams (kitchen and front-of-house) at his successor to Oxheart. They know how to maneuver in the tight spaces without making guests feel hurried or uncomfortable, and they combine efficiency with graciousness. Theodore Rex is now among my top three favorite restaurants in Houston, and while I may not find myself there weekly, I will be a regular.

The kitchen at Theodore Rex, a small but powerful place.

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