Since opening in 2012, Chris Shepherd’s Underbelly has arguably been the quintessential Houstonian restaurant. The menu, which boldly proclaims, “Houston is the new American Creole city of the South,” even won Shepherd a 2014 James Beard Foundation Award for its seamless integration of Houston’s many ethnic influences with traditional southern techniques. Shepherd is perhaps best known for his butchering and charcuterie which, at Underbelly, are embodied by an entire aging room and back-of-house butcher’s shop devoted to butchering, curing and aging the house meats. Shepherd’s expertise is nearly unquestioned in the realm of pork, beef and all things red meat. But in light of the growing number of gourmet diners and chefs moving away from the heavy use of red meat, I wanted to sample the menu without any la viande meats to see if Underbelly’s appeal could be as broad as its influences.
Underbelly does have a significant amount of fish and poultry on the menu. There are even a few vegetarian dishes as well, but the restaurant is by no means vegetarian friendly. While some of the veggie plates — like the crispy market vegetables and spiced okra — are surprisingly good, other dishes — like the crusty slow dough bread with fig butter (which at most restaurants would have been complimentary) — are fairly unremarkable. Even the popular market vegetables, which tend to linger on the menu as other dishes are rotated out, are prepared with caramelized fish sauce, meaning they have to be specially prepared for vegetarians with a key ingredient omitted.
For those simply looking to avoid red meat, however, there are a few more options. Though the menu frequently changes, there’s always at least one family-sized fish plate, usually a large portion of crispy-fried bycatch, and four or five smaller dishes centered on poultry and fish. The bycatch platter, a generous helping of three whole-fried snapper with eggplant and corn on the night I visited, was undeniably delicious but lacked anything to distinguish it from the other great fish platters that can be found around Houston for $30 instead of $60. Over-seasoned and salty, the triggerfish was even more disappointing. The seared snapper, on the other hand, surpassed even the pork dishes my party ordered, spiced with an excellent blend of southern seasonings and served with okra that was far better than the okra I’ve come to expect from creole establishments. The duck was also a surprisingly good example of Shepherd’s genre-bending abilities: the meat was cooked in the classic French confit style and served with not just candied pecans, but southern-braised collards that paired exceptionally well with the duck fat.
Not surprisingly, Underbelly’s extensive wine list has many options, both red and white, that pair well with their lighter dishes. Although the sign at the door declares it “Riesling season” at Underbelly, the hard ciders and light red wines are far more complex and pleasant than the off-dry Rieslings, which pair poorly with even the lightest dishes. The French ciders’ crisp acidity is a perfect match for the greasier plates, like the bycatch and duck, and the light, fragrant Grenaches and Dolcettos, both available by the glass, are especially well suited to the other fish and vegetable plates.
All in all, the meal was quite good even without Underbelly’s star ingredient. Shepherd may be a world-class butcher, but his menu proves that he’s a cook first and capable of serving some remarkable, if inconsistent, seafood and poultry. While Underbelly may still be a pork lover’s haunt, it can certainly deliver a satisfying dinner to those looking for something else.