I walked into Underbelly the other night and straight into a bear hug from chef-owner Chris Shepherd. And I wasn’t the only one. Every woman that the extroverted Houston chef had ever met before, plus random strangers who were looking a little jealous, also received a hug. I’m not sure what male customers got, maybe a fist bump, possibly a headlock. But hugs are definitely part of the routine at this destination-of-the-moment, a sprawling, exuberant dining hall that is more a reflection of its chef’s personality and philosophy than any Texas restaurant I can think of.
Spend a couple of hours at Underbelly and there will be no doubt in your mind why 39-year-old Shepherd considers Houston the preeminent food city of Texas. Nor will you wonder what he thinks about gardening, buying local, recycling, the in-house butchering of meat, international diversity on a menu, “trash fish,” small plates, large platters, football, pigs’ ears, and talking with your mouth full (he’s in favor of all of them). Originally from Oklahoma, Shepherd earned his chef’s clogs in 1996 at the Art Institute of Houston, followed by extensive stints at Brennan’s of Houston and Catalan. But Underbelly is his baby.
The restaurant debuted in March, after having been cited as one of the most anticipated openings in the country by Bon Appétit. But for all the hoopla, once you’re there, it doesn’t feel like you’re in a cathedral of fine dining. It feels like you’re in a comfy farmhouse or, rather, a modern take on one. The room is tall and white, softened by woodcuts, spare pen-and-ink drawings, and photos of local growers. At every seat around the walnut tables are dish towels that serve as napkins; canning jars full of preserved vegetables and fruits line the floor-to-ceiling shelves. The place is too big to be called homey, but that’s the feeling, especially if you’re sitting cheek by jowl at one of the convivial community tables.
Your initial clue to Shepherd’s convention-busting, world-embracing philosophy is the menu, simple sheets tucked into repurposed book covers (I was absurdly pleased that I got the Joy of Cooking). Run your eye down the list and you’ll find a culinary atlas: Thailand, India, Italy, Korea, Mexico, Spain, Vietnam, and the Deep South. Run your eye back up the list and you’ll find no sections for appetizers, entrées, or sides; different portion sizes are democratically mingled. Most provide a few bites for several people, like the pretty and varied “grocery store” charcuterie platter, served on a charred board with a little dish of fig mostarda and some pickles. Every night the menu offers a limited number of family-style servings, where everybody eats a lot of one thing, like slow-roasted leg of lamb. Choosing is an education in itself (exactly what is lambcetta with Mangalitsa lardo?). Eventually I adopted the dartboard approach as the most fun.
And I have to say, that technique worked extremely well on both of my visits, separated by four months. The first thing we plunged our forks into was the Korean “Buffalo Style” fried oysters, which, despite the confusing multicultural name, were actually quite approachable. Drawing on both the familiar and the exotic, the dish ended up reassuringly in the familiar camp, the crisply fried Gulf oysters perched on a cabbage-carrot-daikon slaw under a swath of bright orange dressing tinged with tart, edgy Vietnamese nuoc mam sauce.
Another repeat favorite, carpaccio of near-translucent wagyu tenderloin marbled within an inch of its life, was music to a beef eater’s ears. A lazy drizzle of Texas olive oil and a dollop of sous-vide-cooked duck egg yolk added richness to the lush meat (like it needed any). Happily, the second time I had this small plate, a puckery accompaniment of pickled vegetables had been retired from service.
Returning to the surf category, we tried white-fleshed tilefish, which was fantastic, teetering on a fragrant bed of thin-sliced, masala-seasoned baby okra. But when we circled back to turf, with Underbelly’s much-ballyhooed goat and Korean dumplings, I immediately recoiled into “acquired taste” mode. Not about the goat, mind you, a flavorful, gentle braise, but about the dumplings. People, I tried to give those rubbery little rice-paste tubes a fair chance, but the appeal totally eluded me. Please, servers, at least compare them to gummy bears instead of gnocchi.
On my visits, most of the desserts were true-blue American. Indeed, vinegar pie (think a tart variation on buttermilk pie) resurrected a pioneer-era staple. But my favorite was the moist pear upside-down cake, served with sesame-oil ice cream from Houston’s Cloud 10 Creamery.
When you go to Underbelly, you can be assured that at some point during the evening, Shepherd will come within chatting distance, comfortably easing his larger-than-life bulk and spiky do between the tables, asking, “Hey, how’s it going?” He’s a man on a mission, eager to tell you about his food and proselytize for Houston, which he paints as a deliciously varied and, till now, underappreciated port of call. In fact, if you listen to him for even a short time, you find yourself nodding in agreement. New Orleans, Atlanta, and Charleston, you’d better watch out, because Chris Shepherd says that “the new American Creole city of the South” is Houston. Frankly, he makes a very persuasive case.