May 1st, 2012

Underbelly: To Love Houston and Fancy Its Food

In 6 Words: Passion, Walnut, Hodgepodge, Wine, Fresh, Local

Underbelly opened its heavy glass-panelled doors earlier this year and in doing so unclasped the cover to the Story of Houston Food. Since and well before then, a lot has been publicised about the Bobby Heugel and Chris Shepherd lead Hay Merchant and Underbelly tandem. Houston’s love affair with all things Heugel is well documented—probably to death on our end. This might lead those not familiar with his past concepts to the question, “Who’s Chris Shepherd?” To answer that, there’s no better way to learn of Chris Shepherd, than by experiencing his painstakingly designed dishes and atmosphere.

It’s a Wednesday evening and we find Underbelly at 1100 Westheimer, across from the blazing neon of El Real. The interior, with its wood panelling, exposed lumber and light concrete floor, warms the senses, in spite of its industrial nature. The wine bar is inundated with numerous people consumed in conversation, all indulging in the kind of appetites that cling to the week’s mid-section as well as our own.

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Sitting on the heavy metal stools, elbows resting on the smooth slab of walnut, we peruse the beers and wines. We order a Jester King Wytchmaker, Farmhouse Rye iPA and a Saison Dupont Farmhouse Ale, and before you raise your eyebrows at the $19 price tag, you oughta know that both come in large, 750ml bottles—like wine.

As a table opens up on the small patio, just outside, we grab our beers and head for the door. With plants along the rails and a single oak tree encroaching the perimeter, the outdoor seating is a peaceful sanctuary from the madness of Westheimer, mere feet to the south.

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Not unlike tapas, Underbelly’s “Everything Else” servings are small, which is why we order five. We’ll take the smoked pork meatballs with coleslaw, the brisket with curried tapioca and coconut jam, the pickled gulf shrimp, fried green tomato, pickled tomato and remoulade, the warm sourdough bread and pumpernickel butter and finally, the Korean-braised goat and dumplings.

The two meatballs are a good size, slightly hardened on the outside, soft on the inside, wading in the excess of the slaw’s run-off and topped with the perfect amount of mildly spicy BBQ sauce. Good thing we ordered the bread, perfect for sopping up leftover dressings. The brisket needs no knife, at first it seems overly salted, but that’s quickly amended with a fork-full of the slightly sweet curried tapioca and coconut jam. So far it’s my favorite.

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The pickled gulf shrimp with the fried green tomato, pickled tomato and remoulade stands as the odd dish out. With the aggressive nature of the pickled ingredients, the more subdued tag-alongs are absolutely necessary. There’d be no Captain Kirk without the “red-shirts.” Unfortunately, the Korean-braised goat and dumplings is cool by the time we get to it. If we’d eaten it sooner, maybe it would’ve inspired in Paul and I more than apathy. Chock it up to working out the kinks or read it as the grittier realistic story of Houston Food, it can’t all be good.

Just as a Ferrari begins pulling in and out of the small parking lot to the side of Underbelly – its driver afraid of the car as well as letting the valet take the wheel, we consider dessert. It certainly reads appetizing enough, but that’s a Story of Houston Food chapter we’ll have to save for another time. Our bellies are simply too full. As for this evening and the food we’ve enjoyed, Chris Shepherd’s passion for a great dining experience is more than evident and his acclaim—well deserved.

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Where – Montrose – 1100 Westheimer Rd, Houston, TX 77006
What – Houston Food – local ingredients used in combinations that are inspired by the vast array of cuisines this city offers
Wear – Formal, informal and casual
How much – Tapas style dinner dishes are an average of $18; Family style dinners are roughly $45; Lunch you’re looking at around $16
When – Lunch: Monday through Friday 11:00AM to 3:00PM; Dinner: Monday through Thursday 5:00PM to 10:00PM, Friday 5:00PM to 11:00PM and Saturday 5:00PM to 11:00PM and Wine Bar: 5:00PM to 2:00AM; Sundays: Closed
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— Richard

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