You say you want to give back? Here’s one way.

November 1, 2012

Next week, a volunteer force of 1,200 community folks will help H-E-B/Central Market feed a free meal to as many as 20,000 guests in Dallas and Fort Worth. The North Texas dinners are part of the grocery company’s 24-year-old tradition called Feast of Sharing, a project that serves a big holiday feast to anyone who would like to attend. And it’s free. No tickets. Every person who wants a meal will enjoy as much food as he or she likes. And if they need transportation to the dinner, the T in Fort Worth is offering free passes that day.

A happy guest at Feast of Sharing.

But it’s not the same kind of Thanksgiving dinner you’ve seen before, where people stand in long lines. Volunteers from the community work as servers – as in, the guests are seated and volunteers take the meals to them. If they want seconds and thirds, volunteers go get them. If they want to wait a couple of hours and then eat another meal, volunteers will get that, too.

This special dinner comes from a 45-foot-long mobile kitchen that H-E-B outfitted to generate 2,500 meals per hour. It will travel all over the state in November and December to stage Feast of Sharing in 30 cities.

The numbers are impressive: for the Fort Worth feast alone, the mobile kitchen will prepare 2,000 pounds sliced turkey breast; 1,500 pounds of cornbread dressing; 80 gallons giblet gravy; 1,500 pounds each of mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables; 60 gallons cranberry sauce; 6,000 dinner rolls; and 1,000 pumpkin pies.


Feast of Sharing

The Fort Worth dinner will take place on November 6 at Will Rogers Memorial Center at the Amon G. Carer, Jr. Exhibits Building; and the Dallas feast will be on November 8 at the Centennial Building in Fair Park. The feast hours are 2 pm until 7 pm at both sites.

Not only is this event not a food line, it’s a full-on celebration for the season. Musical entertainment is a huge part of the festivity, and Santa is there for free photos with kids. As one of the Central Market staffers told me, it’s touching when a mom, with tears in her eyes, tells you that the photo of her children with Santa means the world to her because she has no other pictures of her kids.

Kids get lots of special attention at Feast of Sharing.

“We want to make a difference on one day, and it’s about more than feeding people,” Austin Jourde, GM of the Fort Worth store, said. “We’re having a party and letting people have fun.”

The dinner guests will be served in other ways, as well. Dozens of social service agencies will be on hand to distribute information and help people in need find assistance they’re missing. Among these are the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition, Tarrant Area Food Bank, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Legal Aid of North West Texas, the United Way, American Red Cross, North Texas Food Bank and Dallas Public Libraries.

Volunteers serve guests at Feast of Sharing.

I’m hoping plenty of us get out and help; hundreds of volunteers are required to pull this off. A small team of friends from Texas Toast Culinary Tours (my other job) and Fort Worth Foodie magazine will donate a little of our time to help, and we’d love to see more of our friends there doing the same. I think of it as one step to  getting the season underway in a fashion that leaves no room for any bah-humbug.

Want to volunteer? Call the store, 817-989-4700 or click here.

Here are some other things happening at Feast of Sharing;

* Kids’ Zone play area will include bounce houses, face-painting, storytelling and time with Santa Claus.

* Live entertainment will include area musicians, school bands and choral groups, church choirs and more.

Music, dancing at Feast of Sharing.

* Harris Methodist will be on hand to give flu shots.

* Free parking is offered.

What’s not to celebrate?

FT33 opens in the Dallas Design District

November 1, 2012

In this year of ballyhooed Dallas restaurant openings, perhaps the most chatted-about has been that of FT33, launched not quite two weeks ago in the Design District.

Owner/chef Matt McCallistercalls the food at his first solo venture “season-inspired modern cuisine,” offering a menu that he fiddles with every single day. What we can expect each night is an innovative presentation of interesting ingredients. He does this with integrity, which means he’s buying from local producers and utilizing things you might not expect, such as by-catch fish, the unfamiliar fish that gets swept up with popular seafood catches, the stuff that’s usually thrown away.

Lamb brodo at FT 33

Why, you may ask, do people care about this guy and his food? He’s made an interesting journey to this opening, for one, having gone to work for Stephan Pyles in 2006 with no formal training. He shot to the top like a rocket, becoming Pyles’ executive chef in three years. Since then, he’s gathered experience at vaunted kitchens like those captained by Jose Andres in Washington, D.C., Mark Vetri in Philadelphia; Grant Achatz in Chicago; and Daniel Baloud in New York. He then came back to Big D to craft his own place. And he’s all of 31.


We made a trip over for dinner 10 days after the debut of FT33, eager to see if the place is living up to all the fuss. It was an entertaining evening, with lots of intriguing bites. Here’s how it unfolded.

The scene: Opening amidst high-end showrooms in the Design District, FT33 sits between Uptown and the Market Center area very near downtown. As earlier openings by the Meddlesome Moth and Oak have proven, people will flock to this art-gallery, fancy-showroom neighborhood to eat and drink.

Pork jowls, among beginning dishes at FT33

And they do so in style at FT33, where a contemporary interior created by architect and designer Craig Beneke of AI and designer, Hatsumi Kuzuu of Kuzuu Design, blends warmth and industrial notes through use of reclaimed barn wood, concrete, steel, marble, oil drum lids, birch tables and granite. What we particularly liked was the absence of a mob scene that usually exists at a newly opened, buzzy place. Credit a strict plan, at least for now, about numbers that will be seated and at which time, says manager Ryan Tedder.

“We just want to seat about 16 people every half-hour,” says Tedder, who we miss seeing as the award-winning sommelier at Grace in Fort Worth. “We’ve been surprised at how many big parties want to book, like 9 or 10 people, each night. We have to say no to some of them.”

McCallister insists that containing the madness in a rather intimate, 80-seat restaurant is only sensible.

“We’re trying to ease into this. We have to walk before we run,” he says.

We had to giggle when we glimpsed McCallister gazing out from the open kitchen, watching his eyes widen at the company arriving pretty much at the same time when we dined there: At my table of four, my dinner date, another good Dallas pal and I were joined by Texas Monthly food editor Pat Sharpe, who was making a visit to assess story possibilities. Two tables down, Dallas Morning News dining critic Leslie Brenner had a foursome. Across the room, fellow critic and CultureMap Dallas senior editor Teresa Gubbins was eating, too.

After Tedder sussed out wine ideas for our table, server Michael Pennington — another former Grace staffer we miss – reviewed the menu with us. And we were on our way.

The food: From a list of beginnings, we were wowed by the pork jowl plate, three ample slices of juicy bacon laced with black truffle and sprinkled lightly with caraway crumble, propped up next to a creamed parsnip fluff, with a slick of fermented mango crossing through ($15). My personal favorite, as a veggie junkie, was the half-moon arrangement of roasted turnip, radish and carrot over an onion sofrito and wheatberries with a sprinkling of baby nasturtium along its ridge ($12).

Roasted vegetables get a sexy treatment at FT33.

Fascinating in its conception, the short stack of mini-pancakes riddled with uni and chives was topped with a small nest of seaweed and accompanied by streaks of sauces that included bonito aioli, giving a seafood flavor to balance against the contrasting yuzu kosho, which was on the tart, spicy side ($18). For a soup starter, we had the lamb brodo, a rich lamb broth decorated with a frilly white Japanese mushroom, sliced Asian pear, a hint of Serrano chile and subtle liquorice pearls ($12), the latter a specialty of McCallister, who loves adding his spins of molecular-gastro work that made him a name at Stephan Pyles.

The main courses proved equally diverse: Our collective favorite was the 3rd Coast Catch, a Gulf bycatch that McCallister plans to consistently offer as it’s available. The fish on our visit was black fin snapper, a smooth, light filet settled into an earthy ham broth and decorated with red peas and a touch of fennel ($27).

3rd Coast Catch at FT33, black fin snapper

The meat we especially liked was the lamb dish, starring a cut of lamb breast and a thick, very pink rib from a rack, served over plump barley with a tart yogurt sauce and a sweetish carrot puree ($33).

A trio of thick, seared scallops sat atop cauliflower puree, pierced by crisp cauliflower chips, accented by piquillo chiles and capers ($28). A chicken dish played smooth chicken breast against decadent chicken confit, with preserved peaches, peanuts and chanterelles alongside ($26).

The mad scientist spirit of McCallister & Co. comes through particularly in desserts.

Sweet endings seemed complex at first, but ultimately very satisfying. We especially liked the lemongrass, white chocolate, citrus and mint flavors emanating from the artwork presented in a giant wooden bowl, featuring a silken gelato-like cream ball, crumbles and pearls ($9). The chocolate offering was a layered bar of gel, paste and cream, offering hazlenut, caramel, white chocolate and dark chocolate, with candied Serrano chile, blood orange and black sesame elements for a sweet-savory balance ($9).

The next phase: Now McCallister is launching a prix-fixe menu option that provides you with four courses for $60; you add $30 if you want wine pairings. In January, he plans to unveil a nine-course tasting menu that will offer all-vegetable options for those desiring such.

And starting October 29, FT33 will begin its wine dinner series, featuring vintages chosen by master sommeliers from Texas. These are $125 each for five courses with wine pairings, which is a bona fide steal. The others this fall will be November 19 and December 10. Expect good wine with unexpected food.

(A version of my post appeared previously on

Sunday brunch in Dallas just got a whole lot better

September 6, 2012

(A version of this appeared on

Tre Wilcox rules the roost at Marquee Grill in Highland Park Village, Dallas.

Thanks to the genius of Tre Wilcox, Sunday brunch just got a whole lot better. Wilcox, the Top Chef (Season 3) star, rules the roost at Marquee Grill in Dallas, where he’s drawn wide acclaim since the restaurant opened last year next to a vintage movie theater in the Highland Park Village. But I’m willing to bet his cred will just continue to grow as he routinely introduces ramped-up menus as the seasons pass.
We happened by just as Wilcox rolled out his new brunch menu, which only reinforced my belief that brunch – properly done – is the finest possible of all meals. As my lunch date so eloquently put it, you want “an experience that warrants an entire afternoon to languish in the deliciousness of the moment.” I second that. A sublime brunch should be the crowning moment of a great weekend and banish any possibility of Sunday blues.

Arriving at Marquee a few minutes before our reserved table was ready (this is a busy place on Sunday), we cooled our heels on a pretty lobby banquette while sipping the signature Bloody Marquee, blending Aylesbury Duck Vodka (newish from Canada, performing very well in tasting competitions) with tomato juice, worcestershire sauce and roasted chiles tempered in an inspired way with pineapple juice ($11).  We’d barely made a dent in the drinks before our sunny booth was ready.

Tucked into the downstairs room that most recently housed the Escada boutique, we had a perfect view of the kitchen, where Wilcox and his team whip up some killer meals, and of the sidewalk traffic where movie-goers file into the theater to see mainstream (The Bourne Legacy) and indie movies (It Is No Dream The Life of Tehordor Herzl). The black-and-white room with clean, modern spins on 1930s decor ideas is so serene that I was able to (almost) forget that this space housed my childhood dentist’s office.

Apricot filling inside tiny beignets serves as an appetizer at Marquee.

A team of attentive servers pointed us to new items on the just-unveiled brunch menu, as well as to favorites that Wilcox can never remove, lest he endure endless complaints from his legion of fans. For each dish we considered and those we eventually ordered, a new signature cocktail was suggested by the staff, realizing a willing duo was just waiting for such hints.

The food orgy began innocently enough with a bowl of fresh berries arranged over a mound Greek yogurt, all topped with sliced marcona almonds ($9); as well as a small iron dish piled with beignets, little pastry pods dusted with powdered sugar, each of which we split open to reveal a dab of apricot filling ($8).

Those we nibbled while reviewing a most ambitious menu.

For pork fiends, The Hung Pig.

And while sandwiches don’t typically grab me at brunch, the Marquee selection was impossible to ignore. After wrestling with decisions, I had to try the Hung Pig, the carnivore’s ultimate dream: Between two pieces of toast spread with horseradish-spiked mayonnaise, there was a layering of thinly sliced smoked ham, barbecued pulled pork, bacon slices and a fried egg – and I’m not kidding ($13). Sides options included Cajun fries and truffle-parmesan fries, but my conscience only allowed me to order mixed field greens.

That was a dish we paired with the The Scarf Dancer, a deeply purple concoction made with vodka, black currants, lemon juice and St Germain ($11) for an effect that was bursting with freshness while not registering as too sweet.

The Kicker, left, and Scarf Dancer, right.

The entrees list proved even more confounding. Pork belly with waffles and huckleberry maple syrup tempted me, as did the salmon croquette benedict and the chilaquiles. But it was the poblano chicken omeletthat called loudest, and we were ever so pleased: Within a perfect, thin egg envelope awaited a blend of slow-cooked, pulled chicken tangled with melted Oaxaca cheese, spinach and chipotle sauce with a drizzle of chorizo oil ($14), a lovely melding of flavors that spells brunch with a capital B.

Poblano chicken omelet at Marquee.

The omelet begged to be enjoyed with The Kicker, a twist on a margarita, blending Milagro Silver Tequila with roasted chile and pineapple juice, ginger liqueur and fresh lime ($11), a tongue-tingler with spicy, tart notes that bounced beautifully off the creamy elements in the egg dish.

But because we couldn’t do without a little taste, we talked the servers into bringing us a half order of Texas shrimp and grits ($17 for the whole order), one of Wilcox’s signatures that will never disappear from the menu.

Texas Shrimp & Grits.

Jumbo, firm shrimp teased with a translucent tequila lime sauce rested atop a rich cream pillow of grits riddled with chipotle-Jack cheese. Surely it’s one of the more sinfully divine things one can enjoy on a Sunday – but that can be said about practically anything you’ll find coming from Wilcox’s kitchen.

Back to the beach: checking up on Port Aransas, Texas

June 5, 2012

(A version of this story appeared in The Dallas Morning News in April 2012.)

The passing of decades changed Port Aransas an awful lot, I decide upon arrival a couple of weeks ago. Or, I think after a day or two, perhaps not much at all. The more I melt into the town at the northern tip of Mustang Island, very nearby Corpus Christi, the greater my reconnection grows to the cherished escape of my childhood.

Back in the 1960s and 70s, my family’s favorite vacation was a weeklong escape to Port Aransas. The drive from Dallas seemed interminable, so great the overwhelming anticipation of long days of simply playing in the waves. Once we would board the ferry from Aransas Pass across to the island, the sea air scent I will forever associate with Port A assured my senses that we were back at our happiest place.

It was ideal for a family on a budget: rent a little beach cottage with screened-in porch, located so that we could quickly walk to the beach. My sisters and I would romp in the waves and build sandcastles, and obey Mom’s instructions to watch for jellyfish, then whine just a little when she declared we’d had enough sun. We’d buy freshly netted shrimp from one of the little shacks near the ferry landing, cook meals at the cottage, read books, play Monopoly and, on a special splurge evening, we’d have dinner at the Tarpon Inn, famous for having hosted Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Today’s experience, it turns out, still offers that – and more. Getting out of the car as I rode the ferry across to Port A, I can smell the briny – yet somehow sweet – Gulf air, and I was a little kid again. Driving off the ferry, however, it’s hard to believe this is lazy beach town, the sleepy fishing village of my childhood. Shopping and dining options exploded over the years, and the ways in which we can now explore and appreciate the natural wonders of this coastal Texas treasure boggle my mind.

Seeing how locals and visitors alike enjoy zipping about in their golf carts – the cart rental business ranks among the booming industries here – and the proliferation of upscale condo developments, along with the addition of an Arnold Palmer-designed golf course, suggests that you could easily part with your savings in Port A. But a close look around reveals a wealth of pleasures for guests of all budgets.

Here are some of my favorite finds in my rediscovery of what I still think is the best escape on the Texas coast. Spend a little, or a lot. The rewards will be the same.

Back to nature:

Most of exploring Port A’s wildlife discoveries cost nothing, and one of the best-kept secrets remains the University of Texas Marine Science Institute, an excellent place for free programs that introduce kids and adults alike to the seaside environs. Displays in the main building include an artfully designed exhibit of sand from around the world; it’s hard to believe how much sand can differ in texture and color. There’s an exhibit on the magnificent whooping cranes and the story of their rescue from the brink of extinction, and a schedule of films shown in the auditorium including a look at oil spills and other threats, called, Can The Gulf Survive?

Several aquariums inside the UTMSI hold native fish, including some creepy looking eels sure to give kids a thrill. Guided wetlands walks take place at 10 a.m. on Tuesday and Thursday, but you can follow the boardwalks to read displays on self-guided tours, too. Head to 750 Channel View Drive in Port Aransas, not far from the ferry landing.

About 20 miles south of Port Aransas, Padre Island National Seashore remains one of Texas’ greatest assets: The longest undeveloped barrier island in the United States, this refuge delivers plenty of free programming with the price of the $10-per-vehicle admission fee. Family-friendly birding tours take place most mornings and on Saturday afternoons, as well. Every day during the noon hour, park rangers lead a deck talk about the beach, the Gulf, birds, fish and the flotsam and jetsam that washes up throughout the year. Visitors should bring a box lunch. Check with the park office to find out about added programs, which can be numerous. The park store sells plenty of birding and wildlife books for all ages, too.


It’s our last night in Port A when we find our favorite restaurant, Lisabella’s. Definitely one of the high-end choices, it’s the dining spot at Cinnamon Shore, but certainly a place that’s worth a drive from Corpus Christi. The warm goat cheese, smeared on grilled crostini, starts dinner in the right vein, with the plate of baby greens, decorated with walnut bits, sliced pear, crumbled gorgonzola cheese and balsamic vinaigrette the appropriate chaser.

Freshly caught snapper gets pan-grilling, then a treatment of tomatoes, basil, capers, garlic and lemon zest. I’m high on the grilled pizza topped with shrimp, pancetta, red onion, tomato, jalapeno, goat cheese, mozzarella and a drizzle of olive oil. A nice wine list and full bar make this a destination (In Cinnamon Shore).

For an especially ambitious blackboard menu, which changes daily, Shell’s can’t be topped. A longtime favorite with locals and veteran visitors, this unassuming joint turns out a mean bowl of pasta riddled with shrimp or lump crab meat, along with massive, thoughtfully compiled salads and sinfully good garlic bread, all at moderate prices (522 Avenue G).

For a killer burger topped with avocado and bacon, Port Aransas Brewing Company stands as the best bet, and its selection of more than 100 different craft and mainstream beers – including five made on-site – will satisfy most brew nerds (429 North Alister Street .

For a particularly gratifying, cheap breakfast, Avery’s Kitchen does the job with massive omelets, good biscuits and gravy and plenty of strong coffee (200 West Avenue G).


On the high end, Cinnamon Shore now ranks as the most luxurious stay. A new development about 30 percent completed to date, the beautiful homes and condos sitting on paved streets lined with palm trees impart an updated Victorian look reminding me of Key West. Roughly one-third of the current homeowners lease their properties to vacationers, wedding parties and business-meeting groups; it’s anticipated that when the development is complete, about half of the 200 single-family homes and 100 condos will be available for lease.

At build-out, retail offerings will include a day spa, home furnishings store, clothing and accessories boutiques. Movies are shown on summer evenings on the Great Lawn, and artist events are held on the property’s town center. An infinity swimming pool exists, and a larger pool is under construction. The boardwalk spanning the 300-foot-deep sand dunes and linking the community to the beach, is easily wide enough to accommodate golf carts that the residents own – and that vacationers all seem to rent today. The Cinnamon Shore concierge can provide services like chairs and umbrellas on the beach; surfing and kayaking lessons; personal chef for your house or condo; and bookings for tee times or fishing trips. Condos lease for $250 to $450 per day; one of the largest homes, offering five bedrooms, is $1,200 per day (5009 Highway 361).

New York, New York, my kind of eating town

June 5, 2012

As you know, the New York Times doesn’t toss around its restaurant review stars lightly. And while I’m always happy to make my own discoveries when visiting my favorite food city in the world, naturally I’m inclined to trust the palates at the paper I tend to read the most often.

When my friend Pat and I were planning a recent quick trip to Gotham, she suggested we try Kyo Ya, a tiny jewel tucked away in the East Village. It caught her attention when the Times recently awarded the Japanese restaurant three stars; who was I to say no?

Kyo Ya presents kaiseki-style cuisine, meaning it offers a series of small, artfully presented dishes. In fact, the menu was dominated by small plates with just a few larger compositions. Which suits me well – I like to try lots of little things in the hope of not missing one extraordinary taste.

The restaurant sits below street level and can be tricky to find. Once we were down the stairs and inside, we found a little enclave of heaven. Serene and warm with plenty of wood and stone décor, dotted here and there with small botanic accents, it seemed far removed from the bustle of nearby First Avenue.

Making our way through the menu, we ordered a bit of this and that to share. First up was Ohitashi, a plate of broccoli rabe that was very lightly simmered to just barely wilt the vegetable and leave it a brilliant green. Accents of dashi, shōyu, and mirin impart a bit of salty-sweet impact.

We enjoyed a few little fish plates, accented with vegetables and micro-herbs, each prettier than the one preceding it. But the plate that silenced us with its balance of delicate flavor and unexpected presentation was the sweet potato tempura, a small, whole sweet potato just barely battered but exquisitely crunch at the outside and creamy yellow inside.

Baby octopus proved impossibly tender; and fresh sashimi-cut fish, to which we added assorted vegetables in a bowl, cooked just a tad in the warm broth poured from a small pitcher.

A beautiful salad of raw vegetables and a tangle of radish swirls surprised us with its simple sophistication. Lovely tea presentations pampered us, as did desserts of creamy, egg-shaped ice creams with fruit.

Salad, left;  Ohitashi, above

Noontime the following day found Pat and me in another newish hot spot, Tertulia. This West Village darling caused such a stir that celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin were dining there with fellow star couple Beyonce and Jay-Z. But even if I’d never known that, I’d put Tertulia at the top of my best New York dining adventures.

The creation of chef Seamus Mullen, whose new book Hero Foods has quickly won a place on my shelf of prized cookbooks, pays homage to Spain with a space and menu that woos in subtle but sure ways.

Immediately upon spotting the Coles de Bruselas, we pounced. This bowl of crispy brussels sprouts tossed with bits of pork belly and a mojo picon, or spicy vinegary sauce, was the perfect reward for a morning of traipsing through the shops of Soho. We followed this with the Ensalada de Escarola, a salad of grilled escarole mingling with mild but tart while anchovies, bits of toasted bread, a buttermilk vinaigrette and a topping of soft boiled egg. Not one tiny bit short of heavenly.

On crusty bread, our sandwich topped with crunchy squid, yogurt-laced cucumbers, a spicy mojo and bibb lettuce provided that complete balance of textures and earthy-tangy juxtaposition that leaves lasting memories on my palate. And though it was a bit more richer than we’d bargained for, the chocolate tart dessert thrilled with a lovely filling of dark chocolate-coffee ganache over an almond crust with a dusting of sea salt.

Tertulia’s wine list offers an assortment of Spanish choices, naturally, and many of them are very reasonably priced for by-the-glass consumption. The threesome of girlfriends at the table next to us plowed through many a glass of sangria, leading to much loud chatter than seems to pervade the space in this long, shotgun space with brick walls and long banquettes.

Nevermind the din – I still found this to be an exceptional food find.

Perhaps most interesting about our time at these restaurants? I later realized the Times critic had awarded Tertulia two stars. Both Pat and I went away somehow more impressed by Tertulia, the restaurant with one fewer star than Kyo Ya. Like the Times’ critics, Pat and I also pay our bills by reviewing restaurants – but our experience proved to be just a bit different than that of the our Gotham counterparts. Just goes to show you how subjective this restaurant-rating work truly is.

Underbelly, Houston’s new rage, feels as good as it tastes

March 12, 2012

In just the third night it was open for business, I had the pleasure of enjoying Underbelly in Houston. It’s Chris Shepherd‘s love letter to Houston and its food, and it’s as compelling as any ode to gastronomy I’ve known. And because I’ve had the joy of getting to know the owner-chef a little, it’s an even sweeter experience that I’ll carry with me a long while.

photo by Julie Soefer

Last May, I was lucky enough to be in a group of friends that Shepherd took on a tour of the Lower Westheimer building he’d just acquired for this restaurant. He’d left Catalan, the Houston restaurant on Washington Avenue where his reputation grew to icon status, shortly before. In partnering with Bobby Heugel (owner of Anvil Bar & Refuge, just down Westheimer from the new Underbelly site), he endeavored to go deeper into his rediscovered connection with local foods.

Initially stunning is how Shepherd and partners rehabbed the space, half of which is occupied by Underbelly and half by Hay Merchant, a gastropub with a rich selection of craft beers. When we roamed the nearly derelict space late last spring, we wondered how it could ready inside a year.

But less than 10 months later, the former nightclub is a showplace, thanks to Collaborative Projects, a design-architecture-building firm in Houston. Tables crafted from American walnut give great warmth, and soaring ceilings provide lots of air. Reclaimed materials gathered from around Houston find their way into the setting. Woodcuts figure among the artwork. Preserved and pickled vegetables line one wall near the kitchen.

Sitting down to dinner there last week ranks among my greater joys in this work of eating for a living, and the reasons extend way beyond the food. Yes, I think the skilled execution of his menu easily proves what a wonderful mad scientist he is, but the wealth of rewarding elements here are not limited to what I put in my mouth.

More on the astonishing dishes is forthcoming, here and in a story I’m writing for Texas Highways magazine. But for starters, chew on what Shepherd has wrought, even before he nears the stoves.

* Chris subtitled the restaurant: The Story of Houston Food. When you ask him about it, he hands you a brochure that explains why he displays photos on the wall of people that make him “proud to be a Houstonian.” He says, “Sure, we’d love to have you back at Underbelly, but we politely request that you visit at least one of these folks first.” And he proceeds to list, by Houston zip code, the people and businesses that inspire him. There are farmers, Asian restaurants, markets, chefs, bars, bands, arts groups and much more detailed on the list. (My favorite is Lindsey Brown, the Houston marketing wizard who has turned me onto countless culinary experiences in her city.)

Because of his passion for the city and its food, he also leads culinary tours for Lindsey. These have become extremely popular.

* Whole foods, indeed: When we got a quick tour of the kitchen, I was most curious about the butcher shop. Yes, Shepherd has a full butcher-shop on-site, and whole animals are broken down there. Peter Jahnke, whose culinary talents are many, is running this show, and the scorecord on the wall shows rabbits leading the tally with 110 (day three into business, not bad), with lambs at 22, pigs at 17, goats at 8, cows at 4 and, bringing up the rear, wild pigs at just 1.
* Reading the menu is fun and straight-forward, as is Shepherd. And the wine list is a downright hoot. On the first page, there is the definition of wine: “An alcoholic beverage resulting from the fermentation of grapes, typically not found in frat houses, day cares or the international space station. Once consumed, one might feel inclined to laugh, dance naked, make love or all of the above…at the same time.” And there are very entertaining images on the wine list, too, including one of a colossal wine goblet clutched in Sam Houston’s fist as he rides on a horse, high on a statue.

A mascot in the Unberbelly kitchen.

* Finally, I love the familiar, at-home spirit at Underbelly, That’s because more than one-third of the staff was with him either at Catalan or at jobs he had before, some way back to Brennan’s. He even found one of his former dishwashers just walking down the street recently, at which point he brought him in side and gave him a job. It’s clear these folks love working alongside Shepherd, and it made me happy to be within the walls where all this warm, fuzzy stuff is taking place.

Find Underbelly at 1100 Westheimer Road, Houston, 77006.

How I learned to spit, without completely embarrassing myself.

January 6, 2012

Drinking gorgeous, delicious New Zealand.

Here’s my story in 360 West. I just want to go back!

It was every bit as glorious as it sounds.






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