All Aboard the Underbelly Train!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013
When I was in college, all of my friends started talking about this amazing movie Garden State. The music! The actors! The scenery! So angsty, yet so uplifting! It's creative! It's smart! It's funny! It's the movie of our generation! YOU HAVE TO SEE IT!!

After hearing all of this hype for weeks, I went to see it. And...(please don't throw something at me here) was pretty good. I mean, I definitely liked it. And don't get me wrong, I absolutely adore Natalie Portman in everything she does, and I would totally marry her --err, I mean meet up with her for drinks -- if given the chance. But after all of that buildup, I guess I was expecting more. It was a classic example of the ever-dreaded Curse of the Hype.

On Monday night, my parents took the bf and me to Underbelly for my birthday. Which means - I have now officially joined the ranks of The Cool and have become a Trendy Houstonian.

Trendy menus made from book bindings

No? I haven't? You're right - I'm probably still a few Beer Can House visits away from getting there....

ANY-hoo, Underbelly. For the past several months, I have heard nonstop hullabaloo about this place. My parents talked about it. Every Houston blog mentions it. It has become a verb for crying out loud. It even made Condé Nast's list of 70 "Best New Restaurants in the World." Not city. Not state. Not country. WORLD. As in, Planet Earth, son!

And I lied. "Underbelly" is not, to my knowledge, a verb. But it should be.

So, as Garden State (or insert your own over-hyped, underwhelming item of choice here: Kanye West's new album, quinoa, the naming of the royal baby, etc.) has taught us, with all of this hype, I was bound to not love it, right?

Lucky for me, I enjoyed every bit of it. And side note: Did I just refer to a baby as "underwhelming"? Uhhh, yup. Sure did.

Crispy market vegetables, caramelized fish sauce

For those of you living in Houston who have been trapped under something heavy this past year, I'll give you a brief rundown of Underbelly. The Montrose restaurant, complete with wooden tables, dim lighting, visible open kitchen, herb garden out back, meat-curing room, and walls lined with pickled things, is known for it's funky fusion, farm-to-table, shareable dishes. Odds are you'll see Owner/Executive Chef Chris Shepherd while you're there (we did), which is pretty neat.

Here's the rundown of what we had to eat:
  • 2 bottles of red wine
  • Warm slow dough bread, roasted garlic, & leek butter
  • Slow cooked pork belly, watermelon, fish sauce, herbs
  • Crispy market vegetables, caramelized fish sauce
  • Korean braised goat and dumplings
  • Wagyu satay, cold soba salad, crushed peanut

And for dessert:
  • Chocolate ale whoopie pies, peanut
  • Caramel popcorn pot de crème, fried pretzel
  • Fig pecan fried pie, cajeta 

The ones emboldened were my favorites (Yes, including the wine, OB-viously). The warm slow dough bread is AHHHMAZING. The butter that comes with it is like a fancy version of Papa John's garlic butter sauce. Is that a crime to say? Are All The Trendy People going to band together and chase me down with pitchforks for comparing such an exquisite gourmet accoutrement to a greasy, disgustingly good, processed, fast food butter sauce? Oh well, it's true, and I LOVED it.

Korean braised goat and dumplings

The goat dumplings were out of this world. I've never had goat before so this was definitely a new experience for me. I'd say the dumplings were similar to gnocchi. And super spicy. And beyond flavorful. I was sharing a plate with Jason, and I swear with several bites still left, I turned my head away for 5 seconds, looked back, and they were GONE.

"Oh," he said innocently, "I thought you had finished." Then I stabbed him with a fork for underbellying the crap out of my dumplings.

I told you underbelly was a verb.

Caramel popcorn pot de crème, fried pretzel, AKA "Popcorn Ice Cream"
Popcorn ice cream. With fried pretzels. I can't even. I CAN'T. EVEN. Yes, it sounds completely bizarre, but just trust me on this one. It's complete BlissfulNot90sGrungeBand Nirvana.

Even though Underbelly is absolutely divine, I did have two qualms. Geez, Kim, way to RUIN things! Such a buzzkill! I know, I'm sorry, I'm sorry!

But here were my qualms.
  1. The Pork Belly. Don't get me wrong, it was really good. But after I'd had a completely transformative, otherworldy experience with Le Cellier's pork belly in Epcot two weeks ago, I was expecting the same, if not better. I have to say though, Epcot won this smack-down, no contest. Underbelly's was still good, but not The Greatest. Dumpling-stealing boyfriend begs to differ though.
  2. The Crispy Market Vegetables. When we asked what they were, we were told it would be green beans and some funky pepper things. When the plate came to us it had green beans and okra*, which I guess can be considered funky in some circles, but definitely not what we were told and expecting. I like okra, so it didn't really bother me, but my dad is not a fan of the okra persuasion. I'm sure they just ran out of the funky peppers. Not a big deal, but at such a high profile place, you'd think they would have given us a heads up prior to bringing it out.
Regardless of my two minor qualms, the experience was fantastic, and I definitely see this becoming a staple "special occasion" place. Or, an "every meal occasion" place when (see that power of positive thinking?) I casually stumble into an unsuspecting large sum of money.

Underbelly. I know it's super trendy and totally hyped up right now but do it. It is truly an amazing dining experience.

*One time in NYC my dear friend Alice Ann was at a southern restaurant with some friends. Someone ordered fried okra as an appetizer. Alice Ann was completely disturbed, but was coming to grips with this during the course of the evening. As she inspected a piece of okra, she finally said something to the tune of, "I never knew killer whales were green on the inside!" Love her.


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