Recently, while watching downtown’s buildings melt into silhouette as the sun set around them, I had the sudden reckless thought that few skylines can compete with our own. An arguable observation but also inevitable, especially when one is, say, happily ensconced on a vast patio in the First Ward, and especially when one also happens to be drinking a P&T, a sort of free-spirited, dissolute cousin of the gin concoction. No, our skyline has not the enormity or architectural daring one sees elsewhere, but there is quiet wisdom in it, a genius both majestic and modest. Like the city for which it stands totem, it embraces not one style but a hundred, not domination but concert, not threats but welcomes. In Houston’s skyline, one might say, our city’s secret strengths are celebrated and enshrined in glass and steel.
Or so it seemed to me on the porch at Poitín, which happens to be the name of both the Sawyer Yards restaurant that occasioned the above epiphany and the obscure Irish moonshine behind its P&T. Blame for my convention-and-visitors madness belongs to both, and also the cult of Houston-ness that has invaded our culinary psyche. Capturing the unique character of this town is no longer the domain of architects and city planners. Increasingly, chefs and restaurateurs are getting into the act, employing everything from menus to décor, lighting to music, all in hopes of casting foodstuffs in H-Town’s likeness.
“Just as the city of Houston opens its doors to immigrants from around the world,” Poitín (poo-CHEEN) declares breathlessly on its website, “our menus are a culinary embodiment of that diversity.” Translation: Owner Ian Tucker (also Irish, natch) enthusiastically condones an evening repast that includes, for example, fried green tomatoes, mussels in saffron broth, potatoes slathered in chili sauce, Cajun-spiced pork skins, and on and on.
And yet—surprise—the meals I had at Poitín, while disorienting, were not unsatisfying in the least, courtesy the fine cooking of chef Dominick Lee. I can’t say I’d ever previously longed to nosh in the shadow of downtown on the market fish, a whole fried red porgy—propped up on its belly and generously stuffed with papaya salad—even as a Southern Pacific freight train rumbled and squeaked past my table. But now I positively crave such exotic experiences, which is no small compliment to Poitín.
Fresh approaches come at you from all directions: in the seafood charcuterie board, with its tiny jars of spiced shrimp, smoked trout, and more among the toast points, and in Lee’s peasant chicken, wherein a bracing lemon and caperberry sauce almost steals the show. What is so Houston-y about all this? The unlikely pairing of mustard and pork collar, apparently, or chimichurri and wagyu beef, or pomegranate and crispy fried duck. In not a few instances, the combos are more puzzling than pleasant, and dishes frequently struggle to deliver on their promised excitement.
On the other hand, there is a fine boldness disguised as humility—an H-Town trope if ever there was one—in the plain-sounding “charred vegetables,” which are anything but plain, and an “heirloom polenta” that future generations will indeed savor, or ought to—its puree of hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, parmesan, and ricotta is Lee’s most unforgettable effort. And there’s even a little theatricality to Poitín, notably during the dessert course, in which a strawberry meringue tart simply cannot be enjoyed until your server gives it a healthy thwack with a spoon, sending red goo flying hither and yon.
Of course, eclectic approaches can easily lead to identity crises, and Poitín does exude a certain fuzziness, most notably in its décor and design. The low-lit and elegantly appointed dining room sits within shouting distance of the large-screen TVs at the bar, a juxtaposition that does neither any favors. And while the restaurant’s motto—“a high-end experience with a laid-back attitude”—is utterly admirable, hard metal seating and picnic tables on the patio are not the best accompaniment to a $38 fried porgy, or, for that matter, Poitín’s million-dollar view.
Last year chef Lee was the recipient of the Art Institute of Houston’s Underbelly Scholarship Award, the noble brainchild of Chris Shepherd, who’s been something of a paterfamilias of gastro-Houstonomy ever since opening the legendary eatery for which said scholarship is named, in 2012. The James Beard Award–winning chef closed the Westheimer landmark in April—he’s converting it into a steakhouse scheduled to open this summer—but Shepherd’s cooking and concerns remain on vivid display just down the street at UB Preserv. Impossible as it might sound, his new joint is even more H-Town-obsessed than Poitín, and its food just a touch more fascinating, ingenious, and delicious. Still, it’s an achievement that defies easy description.
On the one hand, a riff on Underbelly is intended, a place where the chef “continues to tell the story of Houston food without limitations of locality and whole animal butchery” (per the UB website). At first glance, telling the story of a locale without the benefit of locality would seem an impossible task. But as Shepherd well knows, ours is not merely the story of many peoples converging on a single metropolis, but also of the ingredients they brought with them.
As with Poitín, experimentation and novelty are high on the agenda, and UB’s menu has a searching restlessness besides. You get the sense that Shepherd continues to be spellbound by his adopted hometown, and as such will forever try to come to terms with this delirium through food. This is cooking as painstaking, never-ending quest, an adventure from which our whole city stands to benefit.
Take the Nigerian influences in his beef curry hand pie, a jewel among jewels offered the day I stopped in for UB’s Sunday-only dim sum brunch (the menu rotates). The meat filling, hauntingly spiced, comes encased in a buttery, feathery shell that beats back any lingering concerns one might have about a heavy breakfast.
Similarly cunning are Shepherd’s crunchy pork ribs slathered with mole, and his reimagined huarache, in which trout roe rains down on the humble bean-and-masa corn cake, a new idea that somehow seems as if it’s been around forever. And anyone who cringes at the thought of stir-frying collard greens in a wok has obviously not tried UB’s version, a dish of ham hock–friendly greens quite irresistible.
As at Underbelly, the atmosphere is raucous and chaotic, its dining room dominated by both scattershot simplicity (e.g., little shelves of books here and there) and, of course, a long communal table that turns strangers into friends. And there’s a similar friendliness to the fare of Shepherd and Newstonian chef de cuisine Nick Wong. Theirs is a cheerful, fun menu of items like laap wraps with pork, little treats perfect for sharing (until you come to the last lettuce leaf, that is), and the blood sausage queso fundido (until you come to the last pork-fat tortilla, that is). Which is not to say that things can’t become perilous. Those hoping to dim sum it in large parties are advised to, say, skip the snapper puffs, as competition for the plate of four morsels may well cause a fight to break out.
In the end, though, it is a dish known as Tejas Heritage Crispy Chicken that argues most persuasively for the cult of Houston-ness. Courtesy a superb roasting technique, the boneless half-bird would be a succulent success in any event, but when Shepherd elects to stuff it with sticky rice and Chinese pork sausage, and then dress the assemblage with a salad of celery leaves, he brings pure, unmitigated joy to taste buds of every sort, and—not incidentally—elevates chicken to the level of art.
Given their flair for the dramatic, deceptively humble postures, and y’all-come attitudes to cultures both near and far, UB Preserv and Poitín may be places only a Houstonian could love. Much like the city they call home, however, their ambition and potential are not to be underestimated.