Monday, July 27, 2015

Underbelly Houston

 A couple months back, with no idea I'd be arriving in Houston, I read a chatty little article about chef Chris Shepherd. Though the story of chef Shepherd's culinary evolution and his love for the many immigrant communities in Houston and their collection of unique ingredients was interesting enough, what I remember most was Shepherd's description of his "pants free" days off -- eating pho noodles on his balcony in his underwear. That's how he met his neighbors he claims.
 Arriving in Houston I suddenly thought of that article and though I couldn't remember his name or his restaurant's but I remembered the big man who loves Vietnamese noodles.
Underbelly is loud and friendly celebration of Gulf Coast bounty. It's menu a collection of small plates (not that small) meant for sharing featuring the diverse ethnic ingredients chef Shepherd came to love while first working in Houston. I started with grouper, marinated in yogurt, dill, turmeric, and (at least according to one server but not another) cardamom. Cabbage and fresh greens dressed in a fish sauce spiked vinaigrette with cold rice noodles below seemed like a spring roll opened up and paired with a vaguely tandoori fish.
Underbelly is about the party. The fish, though tasty, was not portioned evenly so the ends were just overcooked while the middle was just under. The highest priced on the menu but into the open kitchen I can see bowl after bowl coming out. Nearly every table has one.
A big man and a big presence, when chef Shepherd walks through the open kitchen to the dining room he high fives line cooks, hugs a server, and meanders past diners in awe to have the chef himself in their midsts. The 2014 James Beard award winner says a few hellos, poses for a photo and settles down at a table of some (I assume) chef friends.
Chef Shepherd and I share a love for the Korean gochujang. And the restaurant's signature combination, the only dish my server tells me is always on the menu, braised goat and dumplings comes heavily sauced in the pepper paste. The meat is cooked to a near mashed potato softness and the rice dumplings -- though usually soft in Korean dishes -- are quickly crisped to add welcome texture to the dish.
Underbelly is not about finesse. It's about bold flavors and assertive combinations. It's about reaching across the table to taste your friend's dish. It's about a frat party of flavor.
Shepherd's dishes are interesting. The flavors are fun. But these are not dishes to eat alone. The first bite is exciting, even tantalizing. The next not quite as good. The third is more than enough. The dishes here oddly become less interesting as you eat them. They are shock value.
Go with friends so everyone gets that first great bite.

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