I'm just back from three days in Houston, a city which should be atop the travel wish list of any enthusiastic eater right now. In addition to a legendary global foodways scene, bolstered by the absence of zoning codes, Houston's home to a crew of talented young chefs who care deeply about the flavors linked with the region's immigrant communities and the Gulf of Mexico, which helped lure many of the city's newest residents halfway across the planet. To eat a hakurei turnip baked in salt with pecans and beef fat, followed by steamed scamp grouper with a sofrito of preserved shellfish - as I did at Justin Yu and Karen Man's Oxheart - is to eat in H-Town.
Food writer John T. Edge -- who's paid far more visits to Houston than I -- has proposed christening its cuisine "Mutt City," which fairly represents the energetic hybridization process at play. Earlier scribes have toyed with "Third Coast" as an encompassing title for Vietnamese crawfish and chorizo breakfast tacos.
But if I was in the naming biz, I might call what's happening in Houston "bastard cooking," since the city's kitchens have inherited an astounding amount of swagger from the cowpokes and oil barons that folks beyond Texas associate with the state. The beef fat which showed up in the turnip dish, or the tannic black tea which mingled with sunflower seeds in a knobbly soup, calmly demonstrated that even in the most refined settings, Houston chefs prize grit and gusto.
Looks wise, Oxheart is largely indistinguishable from similar restaurants in Seattle or Portland (although as my husband pointed out shortly after we were seated, there wasn't any facial hair in the 30-seat room.) The exposed brick walls, Edison lights, hefty wooden tables, record player soundtrack and kitchen bar with a view of chefs working very, very studiously aren't far removed from the reigning Pacific Northwest aesthetic. But Chris Shepherd's Underbelly, the other current Houston heartthrob, is a bombshell.
Underbelly is enormous. The room seats 180 exuberant diners, all of whom are justly thrilled by Shepherd's salute to his adopted county. Near the restaurant's front door, there's a collection of photos - organized by zip code - picturing the markets, restaurants and farms from which Shepherd draws inspiration. It's as much a culinary chamber of commerce as an eating hall.
But it is indeed a hall, in the tradition of the opulent steak palaces and nightclubs that defined high-end dining generations ago. It's harder to pull off these oversized restaurants these days, since eaters have many more restaurants - among other diversions - from which to choose. But what Underbelly proves is big still works. The joy of Korean-style rice noodles with buffalo, exquisite "pot roast" seated in a mess of kale and sweet potatoes and vinegar pie isn't dimmed any by being surrounded by a raucous crowd savoring the same.
Of course, everything's bigger in Texas. Massiveness isn't a Seattle value, so I don't expect to see many restaurants here emulate Underbelly's floor plan. It's a huge risk to go grand. And it requires a different service approach: At Underbelly, the utensils (including chopsticks) are on the table, which simultaneously mints a homey impression and frees servers from a duty that quickly becomes draining in a gigantic room. Shepherd's also always on the floor, making the space feel more intimate.
Still, the advantages of serving so many people is evident on the Underbelly menu, which is rife with fish and meats that Shepherd probably couldn't affordably source for a smaller restaurant (nor would he be able to process them in his in-house butcher shop.) Play and improvisation are constants, since the dishes haven't been carefully perfected for a prix-fixe dinner designed to be served only a few dozen times. That leads to a few misses, but also plenty of fun.
Seattle isn't all small restaurants, of course. Wild Ginger seats 300, and Brave Horse Tavern accommodates 220 people. Steakhouses such as Daniel's Broiler and El Gaucho are also reasonably roomy. Still, it's a treat to experience a restaurant pushing culinary boundaries - and allowing so many diners to enjoy the results.