One of the most difficult things about being a food writer is giving critique when it’s due, especially when you know the chef personally, and want nothing more than to sing that chef’s praises.
So last week, when I found myself at Justin Yu’s pop-up brunch, Money Cat, which he’d been running in the borrowed Umai space for the last four weeks in collaboration with David Buehrer and Ecky Probanto of Greenway Coffee, his wife and baker Karen Mann, and Sommelier Justin Vann, I found myself in this perplexing situation. Should I tell him what I really thought, or, should I tell him what everyone else seemed to be saying – my brunch companion included — namely, that everything was wonderful?
My friend and I had literally ordered 90% of the food menu, and while I enjoyed half of the dishes, the other half needed some work. The oxtail dish, which had received raves by other diners that very morning, I found so sour and salty that I couldn’t and didn’t eat it. The sauce in the curried frog’s legs dish had this off-putting fishy aftertaste, and the congee, while good texturally, was undersalted and bland.
So when he asked me how everything was, I looked at him and smiled before saying what sounded harsh even to my own ears: “Half of the dishes were really good, but the other half…” I let my eyes tell the story, my expression apologetic.
Yu took it all in stride. “Next time, we’ll do better,” he replied. There were no excuses, just a matter-of-fact look of determination on his face.
My expectations tempered by my experience from last week, I arrived at today’s last installment of Money Cat Brunch to find a completely full house with a wait of about 45 minutes. The servers seemed a bit harried, trying to get in orders, turn over tables and accommodate the steady influx of guests that were spilling into every corner and aisleway of the tiny restaurant space.
Since I knew today would be the Money Cat Brunch’s last hurrah, the two of us ordered with abandon, choosing six plates to share (about $80 worth of food), and much more than we would normally order.
A couple of the dishes we ordered were repeats of ones I’d enjoyed last week. The scallion biscuits with honey-Sriracha butter, a Karen Man creation, was just as good as I remembered. The crispy potatoes tossed with pepper sauce, fried garlic, kewpie mayo and fried egg was a full-on slam-dunk, just like it had been last week, so flavorful and simply delicious.
Where other dishes had left me unimpressed last week, however, this week was an entirely different story. My girlfriend and I bulldozed through course after course, reveling in the uniqueness and delicious composition of each.
My favorite of the day, the steamed egg with chili-miso sauce, fried rice balls, and aromatic herbs, was five-star all the way. Texturally, the somewhat runny, semi-poached, half-translucent egg whites resembled those of a Modernist-style 63 degree sous-vide soft boiled egg. You had to scoop the egg out of the small oval casserole dish to eat it, which would break the egg yolk to create this runny golden-white egg mixture that was simply divine. The chili-miso sauce gave it this flavorful kick, while the Rice-Krispy-like fried rice balls added texture. A-plus, Chef Yu, A-plus.
The brisket braised with pandan leaf, which had sold out the previous week, had a kind of Texan-Japanese-Korean spin that was mind-bogglingly good. “It’s so fresh!” my friend exclaimed as she scooped up the brisket with the romaine lettuce leaf. Basically a Korean-style lettuce wrap dish, the brisket had this part-Texas bbq, part Japanese-ginger flavor that worked together beautifully. Another A-plus in my mind.
Where the kobacha squash congee had been a bit lackluster last week, this week’s congee offering with a huge slab of pan-fried Spam, cashews, green onions, bonito flakes and eggs was just a joy to eat. When it arrived at our table, the whisper-thin bonito flakes could be seen moving back and forth, the halved eggs looked just on the shy side of hard-boiled, and the fried spam gave the congee a strong savory component that was rounded out and softened by the nutty-sweet cashew kernels.
This time, when Yu came around, I couldn’t stop myself from gushing enthusiastically. “Everything was delicious,” I told him before he even got a word in edgewise. “Everything was absolutely perfect today.” My dining companion seconded my sentiments, lavishing well-deserved praise on the young chef.
While I lament the fact that Money Cat Brunch will be no more, and say a sad goodbye to one of the most fun pop-ups I’ve ever been to, it is with a heart full of hope that I await the opening of Yu’s highly anticipated Oxheart Restaurant, scheduled to open in the first quarter of 2012 in the space at 1302 Nance, which currently houses Latin Bites Café.
Oxheart, named for a varietal of carrot, tomato, and cabbage, will feature what is described as “a modern American interpretation of regional resources…showcasing a largely ignored diversity of coastal ingredients,” and will offer four and seven-course tasting menus, including a four-course vegetable tasting menu bourne out of Yu’s experience at Green Zebra in Chicago and the Michelin-starred Ubuntu in California. Justin Vann will act as General Manager and beverage director, and Yu’s wife, Karen Man, will head the bread and pastry program.
For more information: Oxheart Restaurant, 1302 Nance, Houston, TX 77002. www.oxhearthouston.com Follow them on Twitter @oxhearthouston
About the author:
Mai Pham covers Restaurants and Fine Dining for lodeplus.com. Click on the subscribe link above to stay up to date with news and events about food in Houston. You can read previous stories here. Pham is also featured on Fox 26 news every other Friday evening at 9pm, where she dishes about food and restaurants in the Houston scene.