Tuesday, May 6, 2014

There's more to come

I flipped open the book cover revealing the night's menu - I believe it was a Julia Child cover on my first visit for Underbelly's opening weekend - and knew things were changing in my fair city. Grilled steaks and wine based sauces that had long been many people's view of fine dining were replaced with an eclectic and vivacious mix of cuisines all blended together to illustrate Chris Shepherd's vision. It was his way of putting Underbelly's mission statement on full display for the diner: the story of Houston food. The tale was told in the menu: from the family style dishes on the menu's left side that were elevated comfort foods such as pork roasts and whole bycatch fish that arrived steaming at the table to the right side of the menu that was a melting pot of smaller plates that consisted of Indian, Cajun, Thai and Korean influences. These cultural twists elevated simple vegetables and familiar proteins in ways many Houstonians had not experienced. It was cutting edge, but so rustic and unfussy that the diner in me delighted, and the cook in me appreciated.

Long respected in the industry, Chris Shepherd had built quite a reputation as a chef who could extract full flavor out of every ingredient while running the kitchen at Catalan. When he announced plans to open his own restaurant, the industry was abuzz with anticipation of just how far he'd push the boundaries of what most thought of as Houston's culinary limits. There were talks of in-house butchering, meat curing, and vegetable pickling. Were these going to be just rumors or lofty goals upon which Chef Shepherd and staff could not deliver? The answer provided to me on that first visit and in the two years since is a resounding no. Underbelly remains dedicated to their craft, and the results speak for themselves. Have I had underwhelming plates on a visit here or there? I have. But even the misses come from some such a dedicated core of quality that I can still appreciate the effort.

Underbelly is not without its critics, and I do not mean for this to sound as if they invented farm-to-table cuisine or were the first to cure meat. There have been restaurants across the country and in Houston employing these practices long before Shepherd and crew set up shop at Westheimer and Waugh. But where Underbelly has stood out from the crowd is in their dedication to product and the tribute they pay to the diverse ethnic cuisines that make up our city.

 Last night as Chris Shepherd accepted his James Beard Award for best chef in the southwest region, I along with many other Houstonians with a passion for food couldn't help but feel an overwhelming sense of pride. This was a big step in the progression of Houston's dining scene, shining a bright light on the culinary landscape that continues to evolve and impress even the most discerning palate. The last few years has seen an explosion of talent in our city's foodservice industry being recognized nationally. Houston had to wait 22 years between Beard winners, but I think our next win is not far off. Fellow nominees Hugo Ortega and Justin Yu are knocking on the door, with a slew of young up-and-comers nipping at their heels. It's an exciting time to be in this city and be a fan of great food. The future is bright.

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