UPDATE — SEPTEMBER 2012
Perhaps we had a sixth sense that the Houston Chronicle’s Alison Cook was about to give Underbelly four stars (which occurred last week), but we knew we needed to get back to Underbelly to give it another shot. Together with some foodie friends who’d also been somewhat underwhelmed with their recent experiences at Underbelly, we set out for what our friend dubbed “Chris’ Last Stand.” I am happy to report that all of us were far more impressed than we were on prior visits.
Even Alison Cook acknowledged that this restaurant isn’t for everyone, including many foodies, but that didn’t affect the crowds on a recent Saturday evening. Our reservation was not honored on time, but we only had to wait about 20 minutes. Service was prompt, although our waitress was not as informed about the dishes as we’d have expected (“it’s leg of lamb, the kitchen doesn’t test the temperature”). Wine was very reasonably priced, water glasses were regularly refilled. There are no extras thrown in — no complimentary bread, no cookies with coffee (which is only offered as regular, no decaf, no cappuccino).
But enough about the niceties, we’d come for the food. As has been written by many commentators, the menu, which constantly changes, has small plates (some smaller than others) and then “family-style” dishes. The intent is to share. We tried a couple appetizer sized dishes — Wagyu beef skewers (with Texas field peas) and coppa (with goat cheese, green tomato and garlic chips). The dishes were beautifully executed and tasty. (Unlike Ms. Cook, we didn’t find the wagyu skewers to be overly salty.) Particularly impressive were the side items, including the wonderfully fresh field peas and the nifty dehydrated garlic chips.
We moved on to two family style dishes — leg of lamb (sided with sauteed kale and roasted squash) and porchetta (served on a spicy slaw). Four confirmed carnivores all agreed the leg of lamb was one of the best we’d ever had and perfectly cooked to medium rare. This dish is an excellent example of the quality of the ingredients used at Underbelly. The porchetta (pork shoulder wrapped around a sausage mixture) was also delicious. The kale, squash and slaw could not have been more fresh and well-seasoned.
An overall observation — serving sizes are not large, even the family style dishes basically serve two at best. We thought we’d have leftovers, with four persons ordering two family style items. Not a chance. We could have easily ordered and polished off a third “family style” dish. Our waitress had clearly underestimated our needs when suggesting the table order 1-2 starters and one family style item. Another friend mentioned that when they dined at Underbelly, their table of four had to order a third family style dish because two weren’t sufficient.
FIRST REVIEWED — MARCH 2012
When Bon Appetit identifies yours as one of the most anticipated restaurant openings in the country, the pressure is on. There’s no denying that a lot of hype has swirled around Chris Shepherd’s announced plans, when he left Catalan last Spring, to open his own restaurant. The construction and related delays only fueled the excitement.
Now opened at the intersection of Westheimer and Montrose, Underbelly shares its quarters with the beer-focused bar, Haymarket, although Underbelly has its own good sized wine bar (no cocktails), and a bar menu that’s separate from that in the dining room. Both the bar and dining room were packed on the Saturday evening we dined. The beautifully redone building, with its warm, contemporary wood tones and high ceiling, is a very inviting venue. There’s a large, open kitchen along one side of the restaurant, complete with glass encased salumi storage. (The charcuterie is only available on the bar menu.)
Our reservation was honored on time, although we went early in the evening, and there were ample servers and bus staff moving like clockwork. In fact, perhaps a little too efficiently. There wasn’t a dish that we ordered (save one) that didn’t come within two minutes of ordering. And we noted that tables which ordered a number of starters (as the menu encourages) received everything at once. This was a frequent occurrence at Catalan, so we knew from experience to space out our order. Perhaps because we dined early in the evening and the server was looking to turn the table a couple more times, there was a discernible sense of rushing us through our meal.
Did the food knock our socks off? Unfortunately, no, although there were a couple near shining moments (yes, it’s March Madness time). The menu is designed for the table to start with the appetizer/small plate sized items (our waiter recommended 2-4 for two persons), and then move on to the family-style entrees in the hunk-o-protein category. Consistent with the chef’s emphasis on featuring locally sourced and seasonally available products, we understand the menu changes regularly. (The menu posted on-line as we write this review is not the same as when we dined a week ago.) And, with a conscious nod to Houston’s multi-cultural food scene, the menu features a variety of cuisines.
The highlights of the evening included the lamb papusas and Korean goat and dumplings. Both dishes included braised meat, tender and deliciously spiced. The homemade dumplings, almost like noodles, made for a unique dish. The housemade burrata (interestingly, perhaps curiously, sided by whole grilled fava bean pods that you popped open) was pleasant but lacking a depth of richness. (Sorry for the comparison, but we have to give the nod here to the version at the Catalan-replacement, Coppa.) We finished with a special that evening — Akaushi ribeye — nicely trimmed and perfectly cooked, sided by roasted baby fingerling potatos and sauteed onions. (For $50, perhaps the plate could have included a few more than three potatos.)
Next time (and there will be a next time), we’ll go for one of the family-style entrees. We’re suckers for pork in pretty much any form, so braised pork collar and crispy pork shank not to mention goat shoulder (on the menu the night we dined) sounded very enticing.