Among the flurry of restaurants that opened in the two weeks just before Super Bowl LI, One Fifth Steak, by James Beard Best Chef Southwest 2014 winner Chris Shepherd, centrally located on lower Westheimer in the heart of Montrose in a space that formerly housed Mark’s American Cuisine, was arguably the buzziest.
It was the type of opening that gained national mention (even before the restaurant opened) in outlets such as Bloomberg News, whose editor, Kate Krader (the former restaurant editor for Food & Wine magazine), dubbed it “Houston's version of Chicago's famed Next.” This exuberance carried through to its opening, when Eater Houston heralded its arrival with the headline “OMFG: Chef Chris Shepherd’s Much-Anticipated One Fifth Steak Has Arrived.”
Indeed, the idea that the same space would become home to a brand-new restaurant concept every year for the next five years had the edgy, never-been-done-before cachet that was immediately intriguing. It was ambitious and ballsy, and I couldn’t wait to check it out.
It was with this heady anticipation that I planned a dinner date with an out-of-town friend on the Monday night after the Super Bowl.
For those who have been frequenting Mark’s for the past 20 years, be prepared for a surprise. Gone was the old-fashioned Italian feel of the former Mark’s. The salmon-colored, antiqued walls? No more. The swooping, patterned window furnishings? Gone as well.
The more stripped-down interiors, designed in conjunction with Collaborative Projects (the same design firm responsible for Underbelly, Hay Merchant and Pastry War), evoked a sort of arthouse-meets-warehouse theme more in keeping with something you’d find in East Downtown.
In the main dining room, a canopy of bulb lights dangling from squiggly black wire, suspended throughout the room from a grid of multicolored panels, channeled places like Tout Suite in EaDo, right down to the ripped holes in the wall exposing the gray brick behind them.
“Are those holes there on purpose?” I asked our server as he approached our table. He chuckled at my query, pointing to the corner of the room, and responding, “Yes, they are. Just part of the quirky design that Chris likes, like the Spock we have hanging in the corner.”
Quirky design elements aside, one of the most notable changes to the floor plan was the addition of an eight-seat, full-service bar along the Eastern wall of the restaurant. Set against three of the building’s triangular-shaped church windows, the bar served as the visual anchor in the room, drawing eyes toward the church windows, on which exterior awnings by street artist Gonzo 247 were projected in vivid, bold splashes of primary blue, red, orange, green and yellow.
The menu is similar to those you’ll find at other steakhouses. A wide, landscape-oriented one-pager, it was simple to navigate, with appetizers and salads to one side, items from the raw bar down the center, and steaks, entrées and side dishes to the right.
Like Shepherd’s Underbelly, One Fifth Steak practices whole-animal butchery, so you’ll find a heavy emphasis on beef and meat courses on the menu. As we were two girls on a Monday night out, that meant that the $80, 32-ounce bone-in strip the server recommended understandably gave us pause. “Too much,” we both agreed.
The braised beef neck Butcher’s Cut of the night also sounded a little to heavy for us. My girlfriend was not into raw seafood, so we skipped everything under the “Raw Bar” header, including an interesting-sounding uni (sea urchin) panna cotta. It wasn’t a special occasion, so no go on the $140 one-ounce Golden Osetra caviar as well.
We eventually settled on a beet and burrata appetizer, shaved wagyu short rib, a rib eye steak, a pork collar and two sides to share. I paired my meal with a smooth 2014 Sextant “Wheelhouse” Zinfandel from Paso Robles from the eclectic by-the-glass list by beverage director Matthew Pridgen, whose red selections took a more thoughtful turn away from staid California Cabs with choices like the Moric Blaufrankisch from Burgenland, Austria, or Parparoussis “Oenofilos” Cabernet Sauvignon from Greece. Caroline, my companion, opted for a Perfect Bourbon Manhattan, which she enjoyed.
On the food front, we both loved the rib eye steak. Wet-aged beef, finished on the cast-iron skillet so that it exhibited a beautiful, deep brown caramelization on the crust, was impeccably done, the kind of steak you visit a steakhouse for.
For sides, the gratin of sweet potato and cheddar, served as a rounded terrine that had alternating layers of potato and cheese and a smattering of pecan crumble, won our hearts as well. Wood-roasted romanesco, a cross between a broccoli and a cauliflower, was also very satisfying.
Our pork collar, unfortunately, was overcooked and dry. Our appetizers also needed work. The beet and burrata, delivered personally to our table by chef de cuisine Nick Fine, displayed a marked unevenness in the seasoning, tasting off balance and drowned in salt. A shaved Wagyu short rib sounded amazing on paper, but also fell short. Several slices of fatty, untrimmed short rib were placed underneath chives and a sprinkling of peanuts. Slices of green strawberry and radish didn’t add to the composition at all, which left a sensation of grease on the lips.
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The fact that bread service was accompanied by a small bowl of rendered, seasoned Wagyu fat that coagulated as it cooled only made the greasiness more pronounced. “Looks like bacon grease,” my girlfriend said, wrinkling her nose.
Missteps notwithstanding, with Shepherd as the force behind it, One Fifth Steak is brimming with potential. It’s a steakhouse for a man’s man, which almost dares you to go as big as you and your pocketbook are willing to go.
I wasn’t prepared for it on this visit, but I’ve got my eye on the 44 Farms 32-ounce long bone-in rib eye ($110), the first line item under the steak menu. I’m also intrigued by the line item simply referred to as “The Tower.” The ambiguous description of “Lotsa tasty stuff” comes in a “Big” size for $80 and a “Bigger” size for $150, and definitely calls for further investigation.
One Fifth Steak is located at 1658 Westheimer, and is open seven days a week from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. For more information, please visit: onefifthhouston.com