Pandemic aside, who doesn't love take-out? The convenience of taking home our favorite restaurant meals was, perhaps, something we took for granted before it became the only way to eat out. Long before this crisis, carry-out was a constant part of my busy life. That said, even the best take-home meals are, at the end of the day, a take-home meal. The experience falls well short of dining out. Chef-cooked food is best enjoyed fresh, plated as intended and in the company of friends or loved ones.
Much has been written as of late, by more qualified minds, on the irreplaceable cultural loss this pandemic will certainly impart on our city's restaurant industry. Already, we as consumers have lost the ability to sit in our favorite local spots and enjoy the meals that bring us such joy, nostalgia and an intangible sense of home.
Luckily, for those who gleam these fleeting emotions from the menus and establishments of chef Chris Shepherd, the people behind Underbelly Hospitality will do you one better than standard take-out fare.
It's called "take-and-bake", and it's one of the ingenious ways local restaurants are managing to stay afloat during this crisis. Just order semi-cooked entrees from the websites of either The Hay Merchant/Georgia James or UB Preserv/One Fifth and bake at home for a meal that rings more true to the experience of dining out.
The Georgia James parking lot is empty when I arrive, an ominous and unusual sight at 1100 Westheimer on a Friday afternoon. Typically the place would be full of life — patrons filling the indoor and outdoor spaces of Hay Merchant while pre-service preparations buzzed along next door at GJ. Today, I see ghost town.
As I pull up front, a grateful looking host comes out to ask my name. My order is almost ready, he says. Two minutes later he's back with my Baked Ziti Bolognese and 44 Farms Steak, nervously asking where I want the bag. I take it from him and he thanks me again.
At home, I set the oven to 350, per the ziti instructions (the steak, with creamed greens and roasted potatoes, has none). Timing is up to you as the instructions only specify to make it "hot throughout". We found 12 minutes was perfect for the ziti. The steak, which was pre-seared but mostly raw inside, took a bit longer. I'd recommend 400 degrees for that one.
Finally, I sat down to a beautifully medium rare fillet over a bed of potatoes and creamed greens. The $18 steak (at least half of what a Georgia James steak dinner would normally run) was exquisite, not quite as well-prepared as a one I might have enjoy in the dining room under normal circumstances, yet the act of baking my meal at home as opposed to microwaving a pre-cooked steak offered a much-needed respite from leftovers and frozen pizzas.
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The lump of what at first appeared to be mashed or whipped potatoes melted, revealing itself to be a lovely garlic butter which permeated everything on the plate, including the now golden-brown roasted potatoes. Creamed collard greens were rich and silky, soaked in the garlic butter and beef jus.
The baked ziti in a creamy bolongese sauce, a steal at $12, was the perfect feel-good food for these trying times. Simple, profound, comforting, cheesy. The dish strikes a nice balance between a meal that's clearly prepared by a chef and one simple enough to make at home yourself. While the steak took some tinkering and reheating to get right, the pasta was perfect from the first bite.
Other "take and bake" entrees from Georgia James include Wagyu Meatloaf, Pulled Pork Enchiladas and Korean Braised Goat and Dumplings. From UB Preserv/One Fifth, try the Vegetable Vindaloo, Crawfish Ettouffee for 4, or Frozen Pork Dumplings.
We don't know how long this crisis will impact us all, but we can take solace in the comfort and simple joy of a home-cooked meal, prepared with love by those who need our support now more than ever.