Between 3 p.m. and dinnertime, it can be tough to find a place to eat. Many restaurants close after lunch and reopen at dinner. Underbelly's wine bar, however, stays open even when the main dining room is closed, and thanks to a new happy hour menu, there's an opportunity to go on a journey across America without leaving town. Chef Chris Shepherd is paying homage to other chefs around the country with a menu that consists of some fun and even daring snacks.
He's calling it the "covers" menu--his renditions of dishes from chefs that he knows and respects. Besides happy hour, it's also available for late-night noshes from 10 p.m. until midnight Monday through Thursday, and 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
The menu certainly has some eye-openers. Take, for example, the deep-fried pork tamales. The wife of Underbelly's butcher makes the tamales and Shepherd is serving them in homage to John Currence of City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi. These are, in fact, the same tamales served at The Pastry War, where they've already garnered many fans. Shepherd takes them way over the top. It is not a misnomer to call them "chicken-fried." The combination of meatiness, softness from the masa and the initial crunch of the coating is compelling.
If you were disappointed when poutine got pulled from the menu of The Hay Merchant next door, there's a reason to be happy again. Underbelly's wine bar now has a rendition of the one from Hog and Hominy in Memphis. A serving of French fries is topped with braised pork, bathed in gravy, and dotted with big, gooey white cheese curds.
Chili heads, there's plenty to entertain you here. From Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco come hot wings sprinkled with a hearty dose of ground Sichuan pepper that will still have your tongue tingling 30 minutes later. If you dig underneath the stack of chicken, you'll find strips of ginger and dried chilies. Only the brave or crazy should actually be eating those peppers, but some people love a challenge.
Spiciest of all, though, are the hot chicken strips that hail from Sean Brock's HUSK in Nashville. There's some history to this style of hot chicken. Unlike Chicago-style fried chicken that is doused with hot sauce, this has intense amounts of cayenne right in the coating. As the story goes, a vengeful girlfriend who wanted to punish a womanizing man invented the dish. After he'd been out particularly late, she made him a fried chicken breakfast with lots of extra pepper. The ploy backfired--he loved it, and in fact went on to open a café that featured the fiery chicken.
At Underbelly, it's served the traditional way, with a slice of toasted white bread underneath and garnished with a toothpick full of semisweet pickle slices. Both help cut the heat, and you may very well need to!
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Not into the heat? The Smoked Gulf Fish dip, an homage to Donald Link and Ryan Prewitt of Peche in New Orleans, is a much milder Southern starter, with saltines to-boot. Shepherd's own Korean Braised Goat and Dumplings is available as well, as always. It never gets old.
This is a wine bar, though, so what does one drink with these dishes? Beer would work well with any of them and is the obvious option, but certain wines, such as rosés and sweet or demi-sec Riesling, will be just as pleasing. Some reds, like Syrah or pinot noir, may be a better match with the braised pork and gravy that comes on the poutine. The wine bar staff at Underbelly are always helpful in these matters, so just ask for their advice on pairings.
The "covers" menu is likely to rotate and feature other chefs' dishes over time. After all, any good playlist stays fresh.