I shudder to think that I came this close to not writing about UB Preserv. If I hadn’t gone for a second visit, everything would be completely and utterly different. But because I did go back to this smaller, updated reboot of Chris Shepherd’s recently closed flagship restaurant, Underbelly, I am sitting at my computer, listening to my stomach growl at the mouthwatering memory of Thai-inspired crispy rice: the tiny pop of fry-puffed grains, the sweet mouthfuls of ripe cherry tomatoes, the bracing chlorophyll punch of mint and parsley. I am desperately seeking words to describe the queso fundido, a shameless hot mess of Oaxaca cheese sprawling across a soft layer of comino-zapped blood sausage. And I am weak-kneed at the thought of buttery, translucent flour tortillas. If I hadn’t returned in early August, I would have missed out on the fact that little UB Preserv is simply one of the best restaurants to have opened in Houston this year.
Why am I nattering on and on about this? Because after my first visit, in early June, when the place was four weeks old, I had my doubts. A friend and I had rushed over at 5:30 p.m. (annoyingly, no reservations are taken) and ordered a couple of drinks. Besides cocktails like the Billy Gibson—gin, vermouth, fennel, and a house pickle—there are fun nonalcoholic options such as a daily shrub and Vietnamese iced coffee. And then we got serious. The best thing we sampled by far was an appetizer: the Chinese-style dumplings, toothsome, notably delicate morsels stuffed with pork to their tidily pleated gills and accompanied by a heady soy–black vinegar dipping sauce. The crawfish and noodles were fine, perfectly fine, but less spunky than expected. The okra with jalapeños and fermented tofu came off a tad, um, sour, and the wok-fried collard greens were unremittingly bitter despite the gentling influence of smoked ham hock and Crystal hot sauce. Was the kitchen still working out the kinks? Did I, in a run of bad luck, just happen to order the few things on the menu that I didn’t care for, all at one meal? Shepherd has a national reputation—he won a James Beard award in 2014—so I decided to give the place another try, this time with enough friends to try plenty of dishes. And thank goodness I did.
UB Preserv occupies a snug, more or less L-shaped area in a small strip center on busy lower Westheimer, near Underbelly’s former location. The smiling host told our group that the front room was “less noisy.” If that’s true, God help the people in the side room. By 7:30 p.m. a juggernaut of sound was bouncing around both spaces, caroming off the blocky wooden chairs and the same stylishly weathered siding that once lined the walls at Underbelly. We settled in to assess the menu, which retains its predecessor’s focus on international diversity while adding genre-busting dishes created by Shepherd and Nick Wong, an alum of Gramercy Tavern and David Chang’s Momofuku empire who moved from New York to Houston to be Shepherd’s chef de cuisine.
Easing into the snackish column, we began with squares of compressed cantaloupe and watermelon, both at the height of their ripeness that summer evening. The plate was a cubist study in muted orange and red atop a cool layer of yogurt infused with chile and drizzled with garnet-colored hibiscus syrup. Next, we went for another arty plate, this one an impressionistic palette of bold pinks (that would be the sustainable bluefin tuna belly) and gauzy greens (smoked grapes, dabs of pungent Thai nam jim, torn shiso leaves) served over rice. It looked like a riff on a sushi board, but with the rice and fish set in sharp relief by bright, acid fruit instead of pickled ginger. Then we segued to the aforementioned crispy rice (sigh) and the queso (moan)—about which, enough said—before moving to the larger plates.
What’s better than pork al pastor? Pork jowl al pastor. The traditional russet-hued guajillo chile sauce is aided and abetted by a savory, corn-based atole mixture that binds the cache of kernels and summer squash tucked under the pork. But what made the whole thing sing was a carnival of toppings—sweet-tart nuggets of pineapple, pickled white onion, and feathery cilantro leaves.
Where’s the E?
The name UB Preserv is a tribute to Chris Shepherd’s Underbelly. He’s preserved its spirit, leaving off the e to show that the venture is incomplete and open to change.
Returning to seafood, we ordered the garlicky fried salt-and-pepper squid. It was heartily approved of by our friend the cephalopod savant, who proceeded to eat more than his share of the small rings and tentacles lightly fried in rice and tapioca flours and accompanied by nam jim. With barely a pause, our pal the meathead led us in a final assault on the Vietnamese-style short-rib fajitas, char-edged slices of rosy pink beef presented sizzling on a cast-iron platter. We fashioned wraps from butter-lettuce leaves and an array of fixings—soft rice noodles, bright julienned carrots, and a dab of fish sauce.
If the main menu leans heavily in the direction of Southeast Asia and Mexico, pastry director Victoria Dearmond’s desserts are all about comfort and familiarity—with a twist. Her carrot cake, shot through with pecans and pineapple, is graced not with cream-cheese frosting but a lighter, Vietnamese-inspired icing made with sweetened condensed milk and a slug of coffee. Her chocolate cake is infused with tahini and capped with a square of pomegranate marshmallow that has been brûléed to a deep, golden amber. Alongside is a scoop of date ice cream pierced by a brilliant hit of anise. This is Americana redefined for the twenty-first century.
When Underbelly opened, in 2012, Shepherd issued a manifesto: his first venture as chef-owner would champion local farmers and growers, practice whole-animal butchering, and create a menu as globally blended as Houston itself. The restaurant was a huge hit for several years. But concepts change, kitchens run out of steam, and these days, just about the only big-deal restaurants that consistently succeed are steakhouses. More and more, customers want strong drinks and small plates, and by the spring of 2018 Underbelly was kaput. Shepherd took his act down the road to this small, casual spot, keeping the global focus but dialing back the rest. Entrepreneur that he is, though, he has also been busy with two other new restaurants. One Fifth Mediterranean opened on September 1, and—wait for it—a steakhouse named Georgia James is taking over the old Underbelly location.
I’ll check them out as soon as I can, but for now, I’m pretty besotted with UB Preserv. If its chef-owner would just get serious about soundproofing and reservations, I’d be tempted to eat there every time I’m in Houston.
1609 Westheimer Rd, Houston
D Mon–Sat. B Sun.
Opened May 8, 2018