Underbelly: The Taste of Home
It's one of our biggest cafe slideshows this year, but Underbelly's gorgeous dining room, inviting wine bar and vibrant kitchen merit all the photo coverage. Take a look.
At the top of Underbelly's simple, one-page menu is a bold statement: "Houston is the new American Creole city of the South," one that residents of New Orleans — long the country's main Creole metropolis — would certainly challenge to the death. But bold has long been the modus operandi of larger-than-life chef Chris Shepherd, whose new restaurant more than lives up to this claim in its diverse menu that's short and sweet yet wide-ranging in its array of cuisines: from Korean-style braised goat and pleasantly chewy dumplings in a fiery red gojuchang chili sauce to a German schnitzel with its always-present partner, red cabbage, the constantly-changing dishes on Underbelly's menu aim to tell the "story of Houston food" one influence and ingredient at a time.
That's why you'll see a Vietnamese-inspired pulled chicken salad with cabbage, carrots and nuoc mam next to a dollar store hybrid dish of "lamburger helper" complete with cavatappi noodles and a sharp bechamel sauce that calls to mind the flavor of Cheeseburger Helper, if the boxed dinner were made with local cheese and topped with fresh heirloom tomatoes.
One night, it's a Middle Eastern-inspired dish of red snapper over steel-cut oats swimming in yogurt, olive oil and dill. The next day, it's a slow-braised cut of Akaushi beef that falls gently apart over buttery potatoes, reminding me of my East Texas grandmother's similarly savory pot roast (if she'd had access to the Texas version of Kobe beef, that is). And creamy, Indian-spiced milk bars served with toasted rice-flavored Cloud 10 ice cream (locally made ice cream that Shepherd purchases from Kata Robata's pastry chef, Chris Leung) take their place on the dessert menu next to Mexican-inspired cantaloupe licuado-style smoothies served with homemade granola.
But what's most striking about Shepherd's menu is that for its bold claim and mission, the flavors contained in each of the dishes are pared down and stunningly simple. Rarely do they overreach and, so, rarely do they miss the mark. It's a refreshing kind of refusal to gild the lily — and one that matches the pared-down dining room, the straightforward wine and beer list with its barely marked-up selections and the overall feel of what is one of the most comfortable restaurants in the city.
"This is the most laid-back 'upscale' restaurant in Houston," remarked my dining companion one day over a lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches stuffed full of Redneck Cheddar, chilled tomato gazpacho with cool wisps of crunchy cucumber and charred Gulf shrimp over creamy grits saturated with homemade pimento cheese, that most Southern of sandwich fillings. He's right. And perhaps — although he is correct — it's wrong to call Underbelly "upscale." The prices certainly don't reflect the word. But maybe that's for the best — Houston isn't an upscale city. It's down-home, it's relaxed and it takes all comers with wide-open arms, just like Underbelly does.
When Shepherd first left his name-making post as executive chef at Catalan and endeavored to open Underbelly, he began staging in restaurants across the city. But unlike chefs who stage at high-end restaurants in upscale restaurants, Shepherd instead worked at places like Thanh Phuong — a family-run Vietnamese hole-in-the-wall in Pearland which specializes in game meats — and Vieng Thai, long held up as Houston's best — if most eccentric — Thai restaurant, in a shoddy strip mall along Long Point.
And between stages, Shepherd worked on plans for Underbelly that included a full-scale butcher shop in the kitchen to carry over his own strong suit as a master carver of meat and jack of all animal parts. He committed to purchasing whole animals from area ranchers, and began feeding them special diets meant to turn their flesh into something unique, such as feeding sake dregs from a Texas sake producer to the lambs destined for the butcher's table. He began buying not only fresh-caught Gulf fish but the by-catch — excellent but extraneous fish and tiny, soft-shelled shrimp that would otherwise be thrown away after being hauled up in a fisherman's net — championed by local seafood paragons like P.J. Stoops.
Shepherd not only let the city's influences wash over him like a baptismal font, he also absorbed the hard-won knowledge and forward-thinking ideas of his peers and colleagues. He assembled a dream team to work both the front and the back of the house: sous chefs Ryan Lachaine and Lyle Bento, butcher Peter Jahnke (who is about to move to San Francisco, but who has made a significant impact in his time there), sommelier Matthew Pridgen, and bartenders like Chris Frankel, who has contributed smashingly fun wine cocktails to the menu in his days off from Anvil Bar & Refuge down the street.
It became clear that he was determined to bring something entirely different to the table at his restaurant when it finally opened — so clear that the buzz for Underbelly was reaching a deafening roar before it ever welcomed its first visitor. Time recommended eating at the "meat-driven new restaurant" ahead of the impending 2012 apocalypse, noting: "No worries about clogging your arteries on your last day on earth." On Underbelly's own website, the bio for Shepherd presumptuously designated him as "the iconic Houston chef." Could Underbelly possibly live up to all of the hype, both from within and without?
Aside from one or two minor stumbles, the answer appears to be yes. And the reason is simple: Underbelly refuses to wallow in self-indulgence (at least for now) and — just as smartly — refuses to allow comparisons to be drawn between itself and Shepherd's previous restaurant. Whereas the food at Catalan was heavy and, yes, meat-driven, the food at Underbelly is relatively light and every bit as produce- and seafood-centric as it is meat-focused. Indeed, one of the best dishes I've had to date at Underbelly has been a "salad" of barely pickled root vegetables over lightly dressed lettuce served on a smooth, dark-edged, wooden barrel stave.
That's not to say that Shepherd has entirely abandoned his Catalan roots, of course. He brought with him to Underbelly a charcuterie program that's shaping up to be one of the finest selections in the city as well as a few old favorites, such as his signature Juicy Lucy — a burger stuffed with cheese before cooking that is as blissfully messy, as its name implies.
My mother and I split the burger over lunch a few weeks ago, the cheese inside the loosely-packed meat vying with the achingly red tomatoes to see who could ooze more juices across the skinny, hand-cut french fries on the plate. It's not the kind of burger you'd eat at a nice restaurant, smears of mayonnaise across your face or meat drippings running down your hands before you cut them off at the pass with one of Underbelly's soft, dishcloth-like napkins. But here, sat at one of the simple walnut tables under a tall, steel-edged room lit only with amber-hued sunshine, it seems like the perfect lunch.
Indeed, I enjoy the dining room almost as much as I enjoy the food itself. Houston has been the happy recipient lately of some stunning restaurant interiors, including the brightly modern treatment at Oxheart, the boisteriously colorful mid-century deli design at Local Foods, and the coolly chic updated French look of L'Olivier. Underbelly is no exception, hedging its cool gunmetal grays and spartan walls against a warm kitchen that's the centerpiece of the dining room and soft, wooden tables that sport white ceramic containers filled with silverware so that you can replenish your own supply as needed.
My only quibble with that lunch with my mom was a vinegar pie that was far too heavy on the vinegar for the subtle Southern dessert, as well as a rather uninspired pork cutlet that didn't live up to the vibrant flavors of Underbelly's typical dishes and an accompaniment of red cabbage that was sorely lacking for caraway, vinegar and sugar. Being a red cabbage connoisseur (it's the German in me) and a fan of making the stuff myself at home, I didn't hesitate to tell Shepherd this when he came by the table to check on our meal later on. He looked taken aback, but when I returned a week later I noticed that the menu had changed to reflect the addition of more caraway to the dish.
Similarly, when I despaired last week of the downward turn that most restaurants' chicken-fried steaks have taken lately, Shepherd vowed to add a chicken fried steak sandwich to the menu. I was delighted, as CFS is one of the hallmarks of authentic Texan cuisine — a dish that spans generations and inspires fanaticism in its fans — yet one that I hadn't yet seen on this most Houstonian of menus. He asked for a recommendation of where to start his research, and I sent him off to Triple A on Airline. He and Lachaine started making plans that day to visit Triple A, so I expect a damned good CFS to hit the menu at Underbelly within the next few weeks.
And this is what makes Underbelly so special: Shepherd's willingness to grow, learn and adapt and his eagerness to continue incorporating Houston's best cuisines into his own, folding them in carefully as he goes as if he were baking a tribute to the city itself. Vietnamese, Thai and Korean; German, French and Mexican; Southern, Cajun and just plain Texan; seafood from the Gulf, meat from the plains and produce from our own backyard — it's all here at Underbelly. And it's all happening.
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