The bad news is always better up front, so here it goes: If you're not in the mood for Southeast Asian cuisine, you're probably not going to enjoy the new seafood-centric menu at Underbelly as it stands right now. If you're allergic to peanuts, your body will undoubtedly swell as if you've been attacked by Slither worms. If you're trying to save a buck, just abort mission because even the warm ciabatta with butter, albeit smoked leek butter, goes for $8 up here, but you probably already knew that.
But for the good news: Every single dish my dining companion and I tried on the Thursday after the essential Houston restaurant launched the new menu launch, just, well, freaking ruled. In terms of Houston's most up-and-coming talent — more like the Southwest's most up-and-coming talent, honestly — chef de cuisine Gary Ly is certainly among the more exciting names to watch, even if an unexpected shift from the restaurant's signature whole-cow butchery comes a shock to some. Ly shrugs it off: "People want seafood in the summer. It's lighter. That's what I want to eat anyway."
Granted, you might feel like you're eating it out on Bellaire. Of the 16 dishes on the ever-changing daily plates menu, only a handful weren't of an Asian bent, including the charcuterie, the butcher's cut, a riff on elotes and the aforementioned yuppie ciabatta. Even the farmers' market vegetables get a hit of caramelized fish sauce here.
Thus Ly presents his dishes with a caveat: "I know there's a lot of Vietnamese and Thai right now," he says. "But it's going to keep changing."
How the fish sauce-heavy seafood menu will sit with people who also associate James Beard award-winning chef Chris Shepherd with CFS and the meatier attributes of Texas will be anybody's guess, but it's possible that in the two days since launching this menu, the kitchen is already facing some grumblings among guests. Or why else would Ly offer that tableside caveat without any inquiry about the evident imbalance on our part? Mixing it up will no doubt prove a wise move. Is this Asian fusion or is this a restaurant that claims to be the bastion of new American Creole?
But let's talk about that fish sauce for a moment. An obscenely large portion of marinated crab fingers arrives over vermicelli in fish sauce, with mint, fried shallot a dousing of peanuts on top for $22, probably the best deal here and what my dining companion, Houston Press contributor Cuc Lam, called the best dish of all. The fish sauce here remains a mystery; somehow it achieves its nuoc mam charms without a noseful of, you know, righteous stank, Lam noted. Fermented cuttlefish. Scent of doom. "How does he do it?" she asked. "I need to know."
If you're not into fish sauce, well, you can at least bank on the oysters, farm-raised in Alabama and sweet on the back end thanks to the way they're harvested — farmed, rather — in an upright position, which apparently makes them all smitten. A jalapeño mignonette was lacking in heat, but that didn't seem imperative to the half dozen, considering the appeal of the oyster's natural flavor, unexpected for the Gulf, perfectly enhanced by the cooling crunch of cucumber. It's a great place to start.
There are giant royal reds, lightly floured and fried and daintier than seems humanly possible given the heft of these suckers. I ate one with the shell on, nibbling it down like the hare I am, quick to start and slow to the finish. "Careful, they're sharp," my dining companion warned.
The head with its fat spilling out, the tender body with its crisp legs, a flash of tail — after a few minutes there was nothing left for evidence. Though, of course, you can just eat yours as I did my second shrimp, tearing it apart and devouring the tender meat inside, leaving its chitinous shell to bereave intact like a cicada still clinging to a tree branch it's died on. A riff on the classic Thai papaya salad, som tam, with local squash and zucchini in place of the fruit, is brilliant, with a peppery chasm that cuts across the dish's sweetness, adding to its allure.
Likewise,General Tso-style frog legs — monstrous ones at that — are a kitschy dish to mull over with your companions. No fishiness of note. Tastes just like chicken, but is certain to gross out the squeamish. Fun indeed.
It's clear to see that Shepherd knows a good thing when he's got it and his ace Ly seems to be leading a team with an ever-growing mastery of Southeast Asian flavors, which do lend themselves nicely to seafood in the summer. But the menu as a whole is in need of some balance and editing.
The main challenge then will be whether the kitchen can deftly execute its vision of Houston Creole without pandering to the steak and chop crowd or floundering in its fermentation obsession. It's not every day you find a braised rabbit robikki with seaweed noodle, rice cake and fried egg alongside a salad of burrata, figs, heirloom tomatoes, pepitas and herbs. That is special. But as every shrewd dame who has adorned herself in too many a fanciful jewel knows, an item or two must be removed to pull off the look. This menu needs balance.
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There's no doubt in my mind it's heading there. I can tell by the desserts alone. A simple cast-iron serving of tender, evenly cooked figs, topped with tart specks of goat cheese, goat cheese ice cream and cinnamon-tinged, sugary pecans reminiscent of those paper cones filled with carnie nuts, was truly the best dessert I've had since moving to Houston. It tasted like the early days of summer spent on a dilapidated porch with the sun fading low and a pie cooling on the butcher block inside, right before some big old dog comes in and makes it disappear in an instant. We certainly did.
Underbelly, 1100 Westheimer, underbellyhouston.com
New seafood menu currently available during dinner hours: Monday to Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.
Underbelly and Hay Merchant are currently awaiting permits to roll out cocktails. Those permits have been delayed and the full booze launch is expected by mid-July.