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Thursday, May 2, 2013

Interesting small plates

Beef leg carpaccio, Oxheart, Houston, TX
Salt roasted turnip, Oxheart, Houston, TX
A few months ago, I finally had the pleasure of dining at Oxheart, one of the most celebrated restaurants in Houston. At Oxheart, you order set tasting menus, small dishes of composed items (really, some of them are no more than 2-3 bites) , with delicately balanced flavors meant to offset carefully selected wine list. There really is no ala carte ordering, other than the wine, and this simplification is in part to execute the vision of the talented chefs as a complete dining experience, and also to keep costs down. Indeed, the intricate dishes command the attention of a small platoon of cooks,  and given the small size of the restaurant, profit margins must be carefully monitored.

I had a pleasant enough experience with a couple of standout moments and a couple not so stellar items. However, I am in no hurry to return. Despite the homey comfortable image presented on the website, dining at Oxheart is a fairly formal affair. Given the popularity of the restaurant, arranging a reservation was enough trouble that I am willing to wait for that special social event to go back.

On a recent visit to San Diego, though, I encountered Okan and couldn't help comparing the dining experience there. The tiny restaurant, a barely labeled door in a strip mall, is actually similar in seating capacity to Oxheart, right down to a central bar area surrounded by small table tops. Okan also attempts a homey feel, a casual gathering around a large sake selection, and small plates of intriguing food. In fact, that drew me in was the promise of Japanase tapas - it is even called that on the menu (printed by laser printer and tacked casually on the door). The difference: the place is all ala carte. No set menus, and it was an impressively diverse and intricate menu (hamo eel tempura and kamameshi were specials that day). Sadly, I could only try a few dishes that day before filling up. 

Rice burger, Okan, San Diego. Two sushi rice patties are grilled, and used to sandwich teriyaki beef and Kewpie mayo. It's remarkably good. 

Ankimo (monkfish liver). A standout dish, the unctuous foie gras of the ocean was dressed in a perky melange of sauce, salad and seaweed that balanced beautifully with flavor and texture. 

Tempura brussells sprouts. The crispy coating was a delicious foil to the vegetal flavors of the sprouts, without being bitter. 
The service pace was unhurried, and diners did indeed treat the place as a casual gathering spot, progressively ordering more food or drink as the evening progressed. And they could - the prices were impressively modest (specially considering the cost of real estate in San Diego) - my entire meal hovered around $20. I find myself wanting to return to Okan on a regular basis, to sample the expanse of the menu, and perhaps that is the measure of the success. 

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