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Oxheart is World Class; Roots is Not Quite

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This week's reviews take a look at two restaurants with vegetable oriented menus that challenge stereotypes about Texans beat meat-lovers. Houston Chronicle critic Alison Cook considers Oxheart and Houston Press critic Katharine Shilcutt visits Roots Bistro. Cook praises Oxheart as among the best restaurants in the country, while Shilcutt sees potential in Roots but finds some problems that need fixing before she can embrace it unreservedly. On the blogs, Urban Swank checks in on El Tiempo, Daniel the gluttinous Chinaman has a disasterous experience at the House of Blues and originally-named newcomer Htownfoodie has breakfast at Baby Barnaby's.

Having named it the top restaurant in Houston two weeks ago, Cook's decision to award Oxheart four stars should come as no surprise. According to the transitive property of restaurant criticism, Cook had awarded four stars to Tony's last year and ranked Oxheart above Tony's in her top 100, which meant that surely Oxheart would also receive her most lofty ranking. She pays Oxheart perhaps the ultimate compliment when she writes "The only restaurant in which I have seen dishes so visually captivating is Noma ... where, two years ago, I had the best meal of my life."

As for what sets Oxheart apart, "the glory of the place is [chef Justin] Yu’s dynamic take on vegetables." Cooks lists several of her favorite dishes, but she seems most impressed by Yu's recent dish that combines okra, pureed corn, green salsa mora and pickled okra seeds. Karen Man, Yu's wife, along with being a co-owner of Oxheart and its pastry chef, also gets singled out for praise. "Man’s slim baton of buttery shortbread laid athwart an herbed lemon cream puts the sludgy extravagance of most Houston desserts to shame."

Slight service hickups from the small staff and one pork dish are the only blemishes in the review. She speculates that Oxheart "could easily turn into a destination restaurant, one that looks to the future of fine dining, and even what foods we choose to eat, rather than modeling the past." High praise indeed for a restaurant that's barely been open three months.

Shilcutt finds things less grounded at Montrose restaurant Roots Bistro. She finds quite a bit to like among the restaurant's vegetarian options, including chef German Mosquera's carrot polenta and "a bright, bouncy kale and avocado salad that resonated with spicy crunches of cucumber and a stunning curry dressing." Mosquera is a vegan, which makes the success of a sirloin-topped pizza an impressive tribute to his skills in composing a dish he would never eat.

Yet, odd pricing and shoddy service mar the experience. For example, a $19 plate that includes two-and-a-half figs, or a waiter that would rather flirt than explain what a "lobstree" is. Brunch seems particularly poor, featuring the fig plate and a $20 veal entree that was "almost pure gristle and barely cooked." Shilcutt concludes with her wish that "Roots gets its pricing in line, and soon, because I want to become a regular there — without going broke in the meantime."

THE BLOGS: Urban Swank, sporting a new design, revisits old favorite El Tiempo Cantina. Felice praises it for offering consistently excellent fajitas and delicious margaritas at every location. Daniel, who blogs as the Gluttonous Chinaman, does not have nearly such nice things to say about the $13 he spent for two sliders at the House of Blues. "I was just STUNNED by the shitty-ness of this lunch. One of the worst of 2012, and it's almost June," he laments. Finally, there's newcomer HtownFoodie, who visits breakfast institution Baby Barnaby's. He raves over the granola and a plate of fruit salad, toast and eggs, writing "I have already returned two different times and I can’t wait to try their mother restaurant Barnaby’s for lunch!"

· Strong Roots [Houston Press]
· Justin Yu and Oxheart Look Forward, Not Back [Houston Chronicle]
· Tried and True - El Tiempo Cantina [Urban Swank]
· Baby Barnaby’s – Breakfast of Champions [HTownFoodie]
· House of Blues - BBQ Sliders [Confessions from a Gluttonous Chinaman]

Oxheart Restaurant

1302 Nance Street, Houston, TX 77002 832-830-8592