Anvil Bar & Refuge has some terribly interesting things going on right now that have nothing at all to do with its summer selection of "Southern"-inspired cocktails. Those are great, too, don't get me wrong. But the best things are coming out of chef Chris Shepherd dabbling in the small 10-foot-by-12-foot kitchen while he gets his collaborative restaurant, Underbelly, up and running.
One of those items right now is the bycatch ceviche, made with fish purchased from P.J. Stoops' weekly Total Catch Market at Louisiana Foods on Saturday mornings. It's the latest spot in town where a bycatch special has shown up, promoted through and by the same folks who have helped propagate Gulf oysters with appellations. The bycatch -- which is an industry term for fish that's unintentionally caught by boats that are fishing for other species -- at Stoops' market has lately included fish such as Pink Porgys, triggerfish, several varieties of snapper and Almaco Jack. It's these fish that are going into the ceviche at Anvil, fashioned by Shepherd himself.
Also included are Gulf shrimp, which never go out of style, in the thick cup that overflows with diced peppers and fresh Texas seafood onto the plate below. The plate is filled with chips, but you won't want them; I didn't. They're tough and distract from the sweet freshness of the fish. Just use the fork that comes with the plate and pawn those chips off on an unsuspecting fellow patron.
Of course, if you're craving something more substantial, there's always the pork debris po'boy. It's a much more familiar incarnation of Shepherd's pig-based cooking, served up on a tough baguette that -- like those chips -- should be immediately discarded. You'll likely end up wearing the sandwich otherwise.
Inside, the pork debris is generously coated with a pickled tomato and braised onion sauce that tastes strikingly like Branston Pickle. Add a slice of Cheddar cheese and you'd have a Texan-English hybrid of a Louisiana specialty. (I don't really recommend this, by the way.) The soft shreds of pork debris take on a darkly sweet flavor with shockingly tart zings of vinegar thanks to that pickled sauce. If it gets too puckery, pop one of the peeled tomatoes into your mouth; they're sweet like candy and wholly addictive and so very preferable to a boring side of potato chips that I raved about them to anyone who would listen.
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Both go quite well with my favorite selection off the new cocktail menu, a Zydeco Fiddle. Dreamt up by bartender Alex Gregg, it's an invigorating gin-based drink with bright lemon, soft apricot brandy and a mule-kick from Anvil's house-made ginger beer.
If I wasn't already excited about Underbelly and its proximity to Anvil -- which means more elegant and mature bar fare like this in the future -- this pairing would have pushed me onto the side of reason. Lower Westheimer is going to look like a very different place soon, and I think I'll like it.