On my recent trip to Houston, I discovered Theodore Rex, a 28-seat restaurant from Chef Yu situated in the same space as his acclaimed and now closed Oxtail. Chef Yu is a James Beard award winner and rose to culinary fame with his vegetable tasting menu. After losing passion for the tasting menu concept over the last 5 years, he decided to open a “new” restaurant with a shareable plate concept. Theodore Rex was so new that I had not heard of it until Chef Takata at Kata Robata recommended the restaurant for my last dinner in Houston. The restaurant opened on Friday, October 6. As expected, reservations were already booked out for October. I called the restaurant and was able to get a walk-in seat. The restaurant reserves four bar seats facing the kitchen and one table for walk-ins. Did Chef Yu’s reinvention live up to the hype?
My Uber driver had trouble finding the restaurant in the sketchy looking warehouse district as it has been badly affected by the recent flooding. Once I entered the small and inviting space, I was captivated by the mismatched décor that alternated between rustic, industrial and modern…but it all blended together seamlessly. I was presented with a short menu and selected a few recommended dishes. In addition, the restaurant also has a good selection of wine and cocktails at affordable prices.
- Tomato Toast – Rye and flaxseed pan de miel toasted and dressed with tomato fondant, green tomatoes, water, fresh grape, tomato slices and fresh herbs. This dish was a classic holdover from Oxtail and was a perfect start to my dinner. The toast was surprisingly light and had both tartness and sweetness from the tomatoes and grapes. There was an underlying hint of spice that added another dimension to the dish.
- Potato Pave – Thinly sliced Yukon Gold potatoes layered with butter and cream, baked and then pan seared in chicken drippings. The chef then added sofrito and celery, shallot, carrot and parmigiana reggiano. The potatoes were crispy on the outside and soft and buttery on the inside. The only negative was that the combination of the sauce and parmigiana reggiano made the dish too salty. I asked my friend to try it and he agreed… this coming from a guy who likes salty food.
- Pankora-battered Indian Creek “Oyster” Mushrooms” – This tempura dish was made with brown rice and chickpea pankora batter, Indian creek oyster mushrooms and bunching onions. These fried mushrooms were served with a white onion soubise and hackleback roe sauce and topped with cured egg yolk. I had such high expectation after the waiter described this dish to me eloquently. However, all I tasted was the batter and more fat from the sauce. The oyster mushrooms and all the other fancy ingredients got lost in the preparation process. This dish could benefit from some tartness to offset the grease. The batter was well prepared; however, it just lacked any personality. This was a reversal of my Texas bias of “go big or go home.”
- “Guinea” Hen – My main entrée was a chicken dish: the horror! I rarely order chicken, but the waiter sold me on this. The chef brined a breast of a French guinea hen and then pan seared it. The breast was sliced and added to a broth of fermented green garbie and chicken. The meat was then topped with a salad of sliced onion, cucumber and herbs. The green garbie were fermented for one and half weeks creating a stronger onion taste that stood up to the chicken broth. On my first bite of the brined chicken, I did not know what to make of the texture. My best description would have to be “bouncy”. After a few more bites, I started to like it. The chicken breast had a soft and chewy texture at the same time and worked with the soupy sauce. I generally do not like onion, but it added a lot of extra flavor to this dish without overwhelming the delicate chicken. This dish perfectly described the style that Theodore Rex is trying to capture in its menu, experimental and yet approachable.
- Roasted Texas Waygu – This dish highlighted a “Denver cut” that was perfectly seasoned with salt and pepper and then seared and basted with butter. The steak rested atop a sherry vinegar pan sauce and topped with fermented radish caramelized in beef fat and cooked down in beef stock. Charcoal wilted mizuna and kale finished the dish. This was my friend’s favorite dish of his meal and he could not stop raving about it. I had a taste and had to agree that this was a highlight of the night. The steak melted in my mouth and the sauce and vegetable accompaniments lightened an otherwise heavy protein. This was another standout entrée for all meat lovers. It may have been the best steak I’ve had in Houston so far.
- “Saijo” Persimmons – This was a simple yet complex and delicious dessert. Very ripe “Saijo” Persimmons were skinned and finished with fresh calamansi juice, olive oil and finishing salt. The salt enhanced the sweetness of the persimmons and kept them from going into the candy land territory. I finished this dish in less than a minute, which should tell you how much I liked this dessert.
While I had my meal, Chef Yu came by on a few occasions to chat about the food and his background. I asked him why he closed down his acclaimed tasting menu restaurant for this new endeavor. His response was that he wanted to focus on simplicity and the ingredients at the core of his menu. Furthermore, he wanted to be passionate about his food again. I also found out that his favorite vegetable was carrot and he hopes that it will be an addition to the current roster. The menu at Theodore Rex changes every week and is very affordable for the quality, effort and creativity.
My experience at Theodore Rex was overall very positive. As the restaurant just opened a few days before my dining experience, some kinks still need to be worked out. There are more hits than misses with the experimental menu and that should continue to improve as the chef du cuisine, Jason White, gets his bearings. Theodore Rex should be on your list to try before it becomes impossible to secure a reservation. This restaurant is a breath of fresh air for Houston’s crowded dining scene.
Author: Chau Hoang
Featured photo courtesy of houstonfoodfinder.com