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A Triumvirate of Taste

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Uchi rehabilitated the 1930s building that housed Felix Mexican Restaurant for decades, turning it into a sleek, minimalist spot with textured walls and repurposed wood. Photo by Paul Bardagjy.

Westheimer Road boasts three hot new eateries
by Marene Gustin

If you’re looking for the newest, hottest places to eat in Houston right now, look no further than the Montrose neighborhood.

Westheimer Road is the new Restaurant Row this year, what with the openings of three highly anticipated eateries within three blocks—the Austin import Uchi, The Hay Merchant, and chef Chris Shepherd’s Underbelly. And they are all in rehabbed, historic buildings.

Austin chef Tyson Cole, winner of a prestigious James Beard Foundation Award, brought his A-game to Houston when he

Jar Jar Duck. Photo by Rebecca Fondren.

opened a sister Uchi here in February. Reservations quickly booked for the entire month at the contemporary dinner-only Japanese eatery, and wait time stretched past an hour on most nights.

“Our biggest problem has been too many people,” says chef de cuisine Kaz Edwards.

Now that’s a problem most restaurants would like to have. So what’s all the fuss about?

Uchi rehabilitated the 1930s building that housed Felix Mexican Restaurant for decades, turning it into a sleek, minimalist spot with textured walls and repurposed wood. It is at once trendy and comfortable, and unlike anywhere else in Houston.

It’s intimate, seating just 169, with a communal table, private rooms, a bar with banquette seating and, of course, the sushi bar. But the real star at Uchi is the food.

“It’s about the aesthetic,” says Edwards. “The idea behind Japanese-style food is all about the balance of flavors, keeping it simple and delicate, using the best ingredients we can find to create beautiful dishes.”

And they do just that at Uchi. The traditional sushi and sashimi pieces are wonderful, as you would expect, but hot dishes should not be missed. Of note is the Jar Jar Duck, a wonderful meal in a canning jar. Yes, there’s duck—smoked duck breast, duck confit, and crunchy duck cracklings—but there’s also sweet kumquats and picked endive, all sealed in a jar with rosemary smoke that comes wafting out when the jar is opened tableside.
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Inside Underbelly Resaurant. Photo by Yvonne Feece.

Just a stone’s throw down the strip, you’ll find two more new places garnering rave food reviews, and also located in a rehabilitated historic building. While the LGBT community lamented the passing of the fabled lesbian bar Chances in 2010, they should be intrigued at the two new spots that now inhabit that building.

If you crave all things Houston—food-wise, that is—Underbelly is the place to dine. The brainchild of executive chef Chris Shepherd, Underbelly succeeds at serving up dishes that combine the best of Texas meats—butchered onsite—with nods to Houston’s Asian and South Asian culinary scene.

“We don’t want to be a restaurant that people say reminds them of a New York City place,” says Shepherd. “Underbelly is the story of Houston’s diverse culinary scene. It is unique to Houston and the country.”

Underbelly is a fine-dining restaurant, yet with the feel of a Texas farmhouse—with walls salvaged from old barns (a meat clever stuck in one as a nod to the on-site butcher shop); shelves filled with housemade jars of pickled veggies, jams, and jellies you can buy to take home; tables made from repurposed wood; napkins that are country dishtowels; and menus encased in garage-sale book covers.

“We wanted to tell the story of Houston food, so why not put the menu in a book?” says Shepherd. There’s also a wall of honor, showcasing photos of people and places that have influenced Shepherd and Houston’s cuisine. And the food is a wonderful tribute to that culinary scene.

The menu each day is slightly tweaked by what local farmers bring in. “We aren’t buying boxed meat,” says the chef. “We buy whole, happy animals from friends. If we get a lot of lambs and pigs in one day, then that’s what we are going to use.”

Currently, sumptuous dishes include Korean braised goat and dumplings, braised lamb neck with farro salad, and family-style servings of a goat rack with broccoli rice. Gulf Coast seafood isn’t ignored either, as the shrimp and pimento cheese grits are a delicious choice.

Shepherd, who cut his teeth at Brennan’s of Houston before opening the former Catalan Food & Wine eatery, is ecstatic to be in the Montrose area.

“It’s a great place, a very walkable area. People can grab a margarita across the street, walk down for some sushi and then back here for dinner,” he says.

Craving a craft beer? Move to the other side of the old Chances building that now houses The Hay Merchant craft food and beer bar. Photo by Yvonne Feece.

Or if they are craving a craft beer, they can just move to the other side of the old Chances building that now houses The Hay Merchant craft food and beer bar.

The partnership that founded Anvil Bar & Refuge (just a few blocks down the street) that includes Bobby Heugel, Kevin Floyd, and Steve Flippo, joined forces with Shepherd to develop the two lots that once housed Chances and the legendary Mary’s bar. Determined to preserve the historic buildings, they turned to Collaborative Projects to design and build the spaces.

“We did our best to be part of the neighborhood,” says Collaborative Projects’ Jim Herd. “The whole project was a team effort—everyone was responsible for scavenging something from Houston’s history.”

From reclaimed wood to cement tiles and bricks, the whole complex that houses Underbelly and The Hay Merchant is a nod to Houston’s past and future culinary delights.

While much of the Underbelly side had to be rebuilt due to city building codes, much of The Hay Merchant was salvaged from the old Chances, including original flooring and exposed brick walls.

Inside The Hay Merchant. Photo by Yvonne Feece.

“A lot of the structure was here when we moved in,” says Floyd, who runs the beer bar. “It was just under layers of stuff.

“Almost any surface you touch has a story to it.”

That also goes for the craft beers they serve, and the craft food from chef Antoine Ware.

Ware served as sous chef under Shepherd at Catalan, but now he’s running the kitchen at The Hay Merchant (named for Robert Lewis Westheimer, who ran a 19th-century hay merchant biz on the country road now named for him).

He shares the butcher shop with Underbelly and utilizes such things as pig ears for his delectably crunchy and tasty thin-sliced treats found on the Hay Merchant menu as Snacky Things. But he also serves heartier fare including Momma’s Fried Chicken that comes with mac and cheese, some huge housemade hotdogs, and a fine burger made with Akaushi or Black Angus beef.

While these three new places, built on historical sites, are must-try eateries, there will also soon be a new coffee shop in the old Mary’s building. Named Blacksmith, it should open in late summer or early autumn and will further enhance Westheimer Road’s reputation as a food and drink destination.

WHERE THEY ARE
Uchi
904 Westheimer Road • 713.522.4808
uchirestaurants.com/houston

Underbelly
1100 Westheimer Road • 713.528.9800
underbellyhouston.com

The Hay Merchant
1100 Westheimer Road • 713.528.9805
haymerchant.coM

Marene Gustin is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine. She also interviews Chris Sieber for this issue.

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Marene Gustin

Marene Gustin is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.

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