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Houston: Food City

1 October 2014

Texas has more to offer than barbecue, as Chaney Kwak discovers in Houston – a city where the food scene is flourishing

On a recent Saturday morning, I found myself doing something I usually loathe doing: queuing for food. In Houston’s alternative-cool Montrose neighbourhood, The Common Bond has continuously had a line of hungry diners snaking out of its door since opening in May. What awaited at the end was a glass case filled with tempting pastries, from croissants to brioches, éclairs to macaroons – not to mention baskets brimming with rustic loaves of bread. 

As they say (and they are not wrong) everything in Texas really is bigger – even the croissants at The Common Bond. A pain au chocolat, for instance, is as big as a cat’s head. But when I sat down and picked it off my plate, it weighed no more than a regular croissant a third of its size. “If I were you, I’d put the knife away,” said a striking man in an apron, towering over me. “You don’t want to lose that shatter effect, that ephemeral texture you can only feel with your fingertips.” 

Who was this Houston stranger waxing poetic about a pastry? He turned out to be chef-owner Roy Shvartzapel, who returned to the city of his youth after stints at culinary temples including Ferran Adria’s elBulli in Catalonia and Pierre Hermé in Paris. Our chance encounter was perhaps a perfect example of why Shvartzapel outfitted the airy dining room with communal tables. 

“It’s rare that you meet strangers in a car-centric city like Houston,” Shvartzapel said, explaining that the queue for the pastry counter, as well as the long, shared tables, are designed to foster social interaction between strangers. So, by chance, we got to talking about Houston’s changing culinary landscape over a breakfast of goodies including delicious kouign amann, a crispy and fluffy cake from Bretagne, France.

“Houston used to be all steaks and barbecue – and there’s nothing wrong with a good steakhouse,” Shvartzapel said. “But for a city this big, it really lacked other high-end options until two, three years ago, when chefs began opening their own restaurants inspired by their travels.”

Houston, a city of two million, according to the latest census data, is America’s most ethnically diverse, surpassing even New York City. In addition to the prominent Latino communities, various Asian, European and Middle Eastern ethnic groups have turned this Texan metropolis into a model of multiculturalism.

Shvartzapel’s menu reflects the Bayou City’s increasing global sensibility, combined with stylish yet approachable venues. As we chatted, I enviously eyed the savoury brunch dishes such as fried hake courtbouillon and stuffed veal breast on grits being brought out by the waiters. Not that I had anything to complain about: I had the showstopper of Kugelhopf, a German brioche studded with kirsch-soaked raisins and dunked in orange blossom syrup – better than any I had during my seven years living in Germany. 

For dinner, I went to nearby Underbelly, considered a shining example of Houston’s foodie evolution. Chef Chris Shepherd, a 2014 winner of a James Beard Foundation Award (nicknamed the ‘Oscars Of Food’), was sauntering from table to table in the barn-like 180-seat room, bantering with diners and suggesting dishes. 

Shepherd marries seasonal local ingredients with cooking techniques from Houston’s many ethnic kitchens: Korean, Vietnamese, Cajun… He goes through one whole cow (and many, many ducks, chickens and other animals) each week, making anything and everything between charcuterie (cured with the help of his in-house butcher) to short ribs served on a French onion soup-inspired stew with sourdough dumplings. 

The ever-changing menu is a culinary map of Houston, traversing many continents’ traditions with creations such as shrimp and spinach in a marsh of coconut rice, skirt steak lightened with vinaigrette and grilled sweet corn, and calamari emboldened with a coriander aioli sidekick. 

But was he overreaching? Tteok, Korean gnocchi, served with braised goat had me worried. Chewy but prone to drying or overcooking, there’s a reason why few foreign chefs have incorporated the Korean rice cake in their repertoire. And Tteokbokki, the spicy dish Chef Shepherd was attempting, is a tried-and-true street food staple in South Korea: setting very high expectations, especially since I’ve had some of the most famous versions in Seoul.

So I was both relieved and elated to taste Chef Shepherd’s interpretation, which spared no spices, and elevated the dish with tender shreds of lean chevon. After all, isn’t that what great food is supposed to do: execute something familiar and comforting very well, while also taking it to a new realm? 

Montrose, with its hundred-some eateries, isn’t the only part of town having a foodie revival. Shopping fiends who find themselves near the luxe shops of Galleria should head to Caracol, the newest venture by Chef Hugo Ortega, where coastal Mexican cuisine is at its best. Try the conch ceviche bursting with refreshing pineapple, ginger and jalapeño. 

In Houston Heights, a beloved destination for architecture lovers and young creative types, Coltivare is the latest addition to the neighbourhood’s eclectic culinary selections. With sophisticated Italian simplicity firmly grounded in the local soil (think heirloom squash from the restaurant’s adjacent garden, dusted with shaved fennel; fresh green gazpacho made with backyard tomatoes; and hearty pizzas topped with goat’s milk ricotta, grilled onion and local balsamic vinegar), the six-month-old Coltivare is an exercise in restrained opulence, letting the freshness of the ingredients shine.

A darling of nationwide food critics, The Pass & Provisions combines two restaurants in one: the casual Provisions dishing out bistro fare with twists, such as Torteloni topped with southern fried chicken and mustard greens, and a club sandwich made with panko-coated sweetbreads and juicy tomatoes. While The Pass, behind an unmarked black door inside Provisions, which asks you to bank your faith in chefs Terrence Gallivan and Seth Siegel-Gardner’s expertise by simply listing ingredients without elaborating on cooking techniques on its prix-fixe menus (e.g. “Foie gras/steam buns/nori”). 

At night and on weekends, once commuters ebbed to the suburbs, downtown Houston used to be no-man’s land. In the past two years, however, the historic Market Square Park area has come alive with outdoor restaurants, smart bars and live music venues. Settle for a local brew or a craft cocktail at lively Okra Charity Saloon, the brainchild of some of the city’s leading bar owners and restaurateurs. 

This non-profit saloon is not only a place to see and be seen among the city’s young professionals, but also a karmically feel-good watering hole that donates all its proceeds to local charities. Perhaps this compact but growing wedge of downtown is a perfect symbol for Houston’s evolving food scene: led by youthful energy, brimming with innovative ideas, and appreciated by Houstonians of all stripes.

Words: Chaney Kwak 


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