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Off to Houston? Dining’s no problem
April 25, 2013 | By:
The home of convention centres and steakhouses has turned into a modern culinary mecca. Kaitlyn Goalen introduces the new stars in the oil town's gastronomic firmament
Food_Houston_OKRA Charity Bar-620

Drinking to do good: at Okra, customers nominate a charity to take the profits from their cocktails

If you had to go to Texas, where would you choose? The Alamo, perhaps, for a sense of the wild frontier? Maybe Dallas-Fort Worth, for – if nothing else – the Cowgirl Hall of Fame? Then there’s Austin, home of the South by Southwest multimedia festival. But Houston?

It’s the conference place, right? A trade convention hub? Yes, guilty. But you might be surprised to learn that, on tripadvisor.com, it’s also rated number 18 of the top 25 attractions in the States, coming above Philadelphia, Napa, Charleston – and anywhere in Hawaii.

There are good reasons: the city has a wealth of top-tier museums, a water wall, an opera house and now – quite apart from all the cultural plusses of a swirling racial mix – a vibrant food culture.

“Houston has no majority,” says Chris Shepherd, chef of Underbelly. He is referring to the many different ethnicities that call the city home – it is one of the most active entry-points into the US – but he could have just as easily been talking about the restaurant scene, which has recently hit a critical mass of talent and taste.

Instead of employing a competitive, “fend for yourself” attitude, Houston’s culinary stars have banded together, sharing the responsibility of city ambassadors and cheering each other on (so much so that they even formed a charitable trust to create a non-profit bar).

The common conception of Houston — the fourth largest city in the country and the centre of booming oil and gas industries— has been one of anonymous suits, conference centres, steakhouses and freeways.

But lately, Houston’s neighbourly restaurant vibe has drowned out the impersonal tinge of big business. Houston is producing not only some of the most delicious but the most thought-provoking meals in the country, from seafood menus that focus on local ‘by-catch’ (fish caught unintentionally in fishing nets and generally thrown away) to culinary tours of ethnic food haunts led by big-name chefs.

Here is our gastronomic hit list:

Underbelly

“The story of Houston food” – the motto of this restaurant – is apt. Chef Chris Shepherd is a student of his city, having explored the kitchens of both fine-dining temples and hole-in-the-wall gems. He shares his knowledge in dishes such as Korean rice dumplings (each one a fiery missile burrowed in a pile of pulled goat) and the daily by-catch special, which on one recent trip was a fillet of mako shark glistening with bone marrow vinaigrette and a smear of kabocha squash puree. Address: 1100 Westheimer Road

Oxheart

This slip of a restaurant flies in defiance of the idea that Houston is a steakhouse town. Your only decision: five or seven courses. Once you’ve made it, chef Justin Yu will trot out a series of delicate, vegetable-heavy dishes that balance the cutting-edge with the comfortingly flavourful. Think heirloom carrots poached in coconut milk with smoked avocado, or beef tartare with a thin skin of kombu jelly. Address: 1302 Nance Street

The Pass and Provisions

Everything about this comely newcomer is ambitious, including the fact that the building actually houses two separate eateries. On the left is Provisions, a warm, Italian-leaning tavern with exemplary house-made pastas. Then, behind a hidden door is the Pass, a minimalist tasting menu affair where “ham and eggs” translates to cracklins dusted in dehydrated pork alongside a tin of caviar and crème fraîche. Address: 807 Taft Street

Okra Charity Saloon

Located in the heart of downtown, Okra is the brainchild of more than a dozen local restaurants, bars and coffee shops, including Underbelly and Oxheart. Each month, the bar nominates four charities, and patrons get a vote for every drink they purchase. (Your best bets: the Boulevardier, a bourbon sidecar, or ask for the bartender’s choice.) At the end of the month, the charity with the most votes receives the proceeds from that month’s sales. Address: 924 Congress Street