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Elizabeth Street Café
If you’re looking for authentic and cheap, you’re missing the fun here. Chef-owner Larry McGuire has done a postmodern spin on the Vietnam of an indefinable past, as if the fall of Saigon had never occurred. The fantasy begins with French windows, turquoise banquettes, and waitresses in cheerful patterned frocks. It continues with lovely rice paper rolls stuffed with Dungeness crab. A bowl of pho is admittedly très cher at 22 clams, but it has more crab than its noodle-house counterpart. The mushroom pho is filled with exotic fungi like thin enoki, while caramelized snapper on fried rice is complex and just a touch sweet from orange juice. It all shows how delicious reinterpreted history can be. Beer, wine, & sake. 1501 S. 1st (512-291-2881). Open 7 days 8 a.m.–10:30 p.m. $$ W+
When a rock star chef like Chris Shepherd opens his own restaurant, people take notice. And Underbelly mostly delivers on big flavors and globally inspired ideas in a beautifully designed neo-farmhouse setting. The menu, much of it locally sourced, starts with cornmeal-breaded oysters with a slaw of cabbage and daikon tossed in a pungent nuoc mam dressing, a great Western-Eastern mélange. It continues with a luscious carpaccio of Akaushi tenderloin (a Kobe cousin) sided by dabs of slow-cooked duck egg yolk and rather oily pickled vegetables (echoes of kimchi). Although our seared queen snapper filet arrived mushy on a pool of too-salty red beet purée, the golden tilefish with artichoke hearts could not have been better. Bar. 1100 Westheimer Rd (713-528-9800). Lunch Mon–Fri 11–3. Dinner Mon–Thur 5–10, Fri & Sat 5–11. Closed Sun. $$$ W+