Adventures in Eating & Cooking
Flew into Houston last weekend and had a super-late dinner at Underbelly, Chris Shepherd’s proclaimed homage to the “story of Houston food.” Shepherd seems to have a lot of pride in his town and its food stories, listing a number of Houston restaurants that inspire his dishes at Underbelly. The eclectic roots from which Shepherd gives credit leaves me skeptical about Underbelly’s over-ambition to encompass all of these Houstonian cuisines under one roof. And yet it advertises as “new American Creole.” All I can tell is there’s some sort of identity crisis going on here, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We all have identity crises and evolve from them, as do restaurants to accommodate ever-changing demographics and palates. Let’s see what Shepherd’s interpretation of Houston cuisine is like~
Yes, we paid $7 for a giant hunk of ciabatta bread and veggie butter. Do I regret this? Not really, because I’m a sucker warm, bread, fresh out of the oven. The portion was also a lot bigger than we had expected – probably the equivalent of a loaf. (The photo slimmed it down a lot actually.) And we tore the bread apart like barbarians, but spread the butter on lavishly like refined English-people. This bread was yummy, mostly because it was fresh with a crispy exterior and hearty, yeasty interior. Butta’ be butta’ no matta’ what’a. Veggie flavor made it tart, but it wasn’t anything special.
Tamales a la Xavi, Squash Salad, and Salsa– Yummy! My first time having tamales since I’m still a Mexican-food-noob in many respects. Miss Cosmopolitan compared it it to a 粽子 (zong zi), Chinese-style sticky rice wrapped in a bamboo leaf. They both have the leaf wrapping (I had no idea and was about to chomp on the whole thing, haha). Instead of sticky rice, tamales use a masa (corn-based dough) with a soft, mushy consistency. The innards are still stuffed with tender pieces of pork, slow-roasted.
Roasted New Potatoes with Bacon Jam and Duck Egg– Potatoes are easily the best dish in any meal. Something about the potassium-rich, starchy, hearty goodness that hits home. Plus, these spuds have a knack at soaking up flavors from a pan so readily. In this case, the potatoes were savory and crisp, sweetened by the bacon jam. The bacon jam was an interesting concept, resembling BBQ sauce in its sweet meatiness. I found it a bit too sweet, but could be a good alternative to ketchup for others.
Smoked Beef Shoulder with Squash & Beans Salad– To me, steak will be steak. And either I’ve never had a fantastic steak before, but they all kind of taste like meat-overload that tires out my jaw. I know that sounds very lame coming from a munchimonster, but I’m just not a steak connoisseur. I mean it was a good slab of fairly tender meat, but there wasn’t a memorable rub flavoring and it was still pretty tough to chew. The salad was way too peppery…
Summer Fruit Pie for dessert – consisting of peaches, strawberries, and blueberries in a puff pastry crust. This was fun and light, soaked in an almond-flavored sauce reminiscent of a Chinese pudding snack. Reminded me almost of a European fruit tart crossover with Southern strawberry shortcake. Curious to say the least… That’s the overall theme of Underbelly. It definitely feels like there is some sort of identity crisis or transition going on here. The dishes feel very varied and experimental… Perhaps a reflection of the transitioning food scene here in this city. Or a need for a new direction.