We’ve all seen a croquembouche—that Christmas-tree-shaped tower of cream puffs wrapped in spun sugar—most likely in one of those movies about wealthy, 19th-century Europeans. Some of us may have even eaten one at a special event. But chances are, none of us have ordered one at the bar.
This is the strange magic of the second iteration of Chris Shepherd’s One Fifth. In the old church on Westheimer that was previously home to Mark’s American Cuisine, Shepherd and his team are launching a different restaurant concept each year, much in the same mold as Grant Achatz’s Chicago restaurant Next, which makes a departure every few months. Shepherd’s current project, called Romance Languages, focuses on foods from France, Spain and Italy.
As at Mark’s, the sacred setting doesn’t mean pretention, despite One Fifth’s hardcore adherence to sourcing the best ingredients and serving European favorites not widely seen in the United States. But it comes at a price.
The fruits de terre tower is the best charcuterie board being served in Houston right now. By a mile. But is that mile worth $110? That’s between you and your wallet. At Underbelly, another Shepherd restaurant (along with Hay Merchant next door), many dishes don’t merit price tags so far above similar offerings from other Houston spots. But at One Fifth, much of what you’ll order is unique.
In the case of the tower, that means two tiers of silver trays, laden with highly seasonal pickles, preserves and meaty goodies. When I tried it, highlights were the tangy, funky bresaola (air-dried beef) and warm, melting torchon of foie gras served over sweet-and-tangy persimmon paste. There was one clunker, the rillettes, a cooked-down pork spread so dense that it was difficult to penetrate with a knife. But when Shepherd later asked about the tower—with chef de cuisine Nick Fine in the kitchen, he’s free to make the rounds—he promised to change the recipe. This was representative of the ultra-friendly service I experienced here.
But what Romance Languages will be remembered for, after it’s replaced by Fish next September, is its pasta. And the most impressive of these is a plate of scialatelli, linguine-like noodles that Shepherd discovered in Alba, Italy, last summer. The nest of homemade pasta is served wreathed by pecorino and truffle shaved at the table. In the middle, an egg yolk sits ready to be mixed with the other ingredients, resulting in a sauce that’s rich, salty and, thanks to the addition of hazelnuts, almost like a savory dessert.
Plin is tri-cornered pasta stuffed with foie gras and pork, topped in grated ricotta salata and served in a citrusy butter sauce with charred onions and microgreens that, like the scialatelli, arrives ideally al dente. Only the gnocchi came up short, aspiring to such lightness that it simply disintegrated among its delectable companions of pulled rabbit and mushrooms.
The entrées are good, too, particularly the suckling pig pressé, which Shepherd describes as a “pig brownie.” The tender knots of flesh beneath crackling skin in white bean purée are hard to stop eating, but strangely, I was even more enchanted by the ideally charred broccolini on the side. Nonetheless, I’d skip that and the beef cheek Bourgogne any day in favor of pasta and dessert.
And when I say dessert, I mean only one thing. I was disappointed by pastry chef Victoria Dearmond’s granular, too-sweet caramel-hazelnut budino and homespun-in-the-wrong-way cherry frangipane tart. But once the croquembouche hit the bar (after 20 minutes of baking to order), all bets were off. Few pastry chefs can make a proper choux dough, one that’s yielding and soft, but also hardy enough to withstand a creamy filling. Dearmond hit the target at the very center, filling her tiny balls of dough with orange-anise cream. And at $25, the eminently sharable dessert is, at least in One Fifth terms, a real steal.
One Fifth’s predecessor, Mark’s American Cuisine, closed in May 2016, a blow to the kind of old-fashioned refinement not much seen in Houston anymore. Six months later, River Oaks residents suffered a similar loss when John Sheely closed his 15-year-old Mockingbird Bistro. But just as 1658 Westheimer Road has seen a revival, Sheely has found a new audience in Montrose. Unexpectedly, it’s at Lowbrow. (Ed. Note: John Sheely announced his departure from Lowbrow on November 2.)
The restaurant first opened under different ownership, in 2013, serving dishes like a fontina-filled Juicy Lucy and masala-spiced wings. Since last summer, Sheely and business partner Chris Ray have been renting the space and offering a more traditional menu.
In fact, it might be easier to think of the new Lowbrow as Mockingbird Bistro 2.0. Though the menu is all-American, vestiges of the shuttered restaurant’s French-accented fare remain. Sheely’s braised short ribs appear both over horseradish mashed potatoes and, for $5 at happy hour, piled atop a bowl of mac ‘n’ cheese that makes for a strange synthesis of Velveeta mac and wine-braised beef. I wasn’t sure I respected it, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying it along with a buoyant, $5 Cucumber Cooler.
Another successful return is a foie-gras-topped burger, in this case, ground chuck buried in melted Roquefort for a salty, earthy funk, then topped with a chunk of seared fatty liver. My dining companion thought it was too rich, but for those among us for whom that isn’t possible, it’s a powerful statement on what a burger can be. A schnitzel sandwich available at lunch, topped in iceberg slaw made with shredded lettuce and mayo, plus hot sauce, is also a winner.
But I wouldn’t return to the restaurant solely on the merits of any of these dishes. And the menu neither soars with highbrow ideas nor conjures kitsch with downscale ones. Chicken-fried steak, served as “country fried steak” at lunch and “crispy beef cutlet” at dinner, is a standard roadside plate of breaded beef, green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy. It is so stolidly normcore, there is nothing else to say about it.
The idea of a lighter summer cassoulet of white beans, sausage, tomatoes and spinach served with salmon is an interesting one in theory. In practice, my companion said that he’d had a better version of the sickly-sweet meal at Applebee’s.
Desserts, for the moment, cycle through regularly. This can mean something very good, perhaps the buttermilk pie, made from dairy so fresh, I thought I tasted floral notes from the clover the cows ate before milking. It can also mean a bummer along the lines of the two giant triangles of bread pudding I was served, each dry inside and out and sunken into a caramel sauce that tasted a few degrees closer to blackened than caramelized.
If Lowbrow were in my neighborhood, it’s unlikely that it would be my local dive, despite a fun ambience. But if I’m celebrating a special occasion and have money to burn, I may well head a few blocks up to One Fifth.