By Eric Sandler
This summer’s most buzzworthy dining experience isn’t taking place at some new opening River Oaks District or the Heights. The meal may be served at Oxheart, but James Beard Award winner Justin Yu isn’t preparing the cuisine (although he might appear as a food runner). Rather than a gala dinner, this pop-up takes place during the day.
LÜNCH, the pop-up that unites chef Peter Jahnke (Oxheart, Underbelly) with pastry chef Jillian Bartolome (Common Bond) and Master Sommelier David Keck (Camerata) has already completed about half of its 10-day takeover of Oxheart’s intimate space in downtown’s warehouse district, but curious diners still have time to book a table. Here’s what to expect.
Upon entering, diners will notice that Oxheart designer gindesignsgroup has given the space a mild reworking that allows it to feel both familiar but slightly different. The usually open kitchen has been hidden from view with curtains, and the 12-seat counter has been moved closer to the door to serve as the hostess stand. The six-person table that’s usually next to the entrance has been relocated to the middle of the dining room, and new curtains hang from the ceiling near the tables.
Menu choices are straightforward. For $25, diners receive two courses and a takeaway dessert (aka, the Loop). A four-course menu (aka, the Beltway 8) costs $40, or select six courses (aka, the Grand Parkway) for $60. Wine pairings are also available. Note that the dishes offered on each menu don’t overlap, and the menu changes frequently enough that the dishes I ate on Friday may already have been retired.
Last month, Jahnke told CultureMap that his dishes would be on the lighter side, and that held true during Friday’s lunch. Lightness, acidity, and textural contrasts marked all of the chef’s dishes. For example, walnut pesto and coffee rice balanced a rich, fatty duck confit. Similarly, sweet sous vide shrimp got a hit of tartness from sliced grapes and an herbal boost from fennel custard. Bartolome’s dessert, a Japanese-inspired chocolate namelaka with coconut, demonstrated she’s proficient with more than just Common Bond’s signature croissants and cookies.
Artful plating marked all of the dishes. Diners may be used to seeing that sort of care at dinner, but the thoughtful preparations mark LÜNCH as a special experience. Similarly, Keck and some of his restaurant industry friends delivered an extremely polished, efficient service. The six-course meal only took about 90 minutes, which makes it possible for downtown office workers to stretch a bit and order the full menu.
Some inconveniences that one will tolerate at a pop-up will need tweaking if LÜNCH ever becomes a restaurant. Most importantly, it would be nice to have a printed menu that lists the dishes available with each menu and the corresponding price. My friends and I decided early on to order the six-course menu, but we cast a few jealous glances at adjacent tables as we tried to discern what we missed out on.
Complaining about portion sizes at a tasting menu is pretty tired, but no one I know who has eaten at LÜNCH has left feeling full (admittedly a subjective perception). Few people have the inclination to consume a huge meal in the middle of the day — or the time for a nap such a meal might trigger — but a six-course meal should at least leave one feeling more satiated than we did. Adding a bread course would help; given Bartolome’s Michelin-starred resume, it would probably be delicious, too.
Still, a pop-up typically serves as a testing ground for ideas that may one day lead to a restaurant. By that standard, I consider LÜNCH to be highly successful. Jahnke, Bartolome, and Keck display enough good ideas that a restaurant that combined their talents could emerge as one of Houston’s top dining destinations.