UB Preserv is all about blending Houston's cuisines and cultures.
Chris Shepherd showed the writer Houston's best.
Underbelly's famed Korean braised goat and dumplings can be found at The Hay Merchant. (Photo by The Hay Merchant.)
Underbelly space will reopen as Georgia James, a steakhouse named for Shepherd's parents.
It’s Thursday in the early afternoon and Chris Shepherd sits forward, scribbling on a sheet of paper. His many marks will become the dim sum-style brunch menu for lazy weekend afternoons at the new UB Preserv.
It’s not exactly clear what he’s jotted down so far, but it goes without saying that the menu will represent a bevy of cuisines. If we’ve learned anything from Underbelly, UB Preserv’s Houston restaurant predecessor, it’s that Shepherd’s approach is respectful and inquisitive of other cultures. In his case, curiosity feeds the cat.
The James Beard Award-winning chef’s new restaurant at 1609 Westheimer quietly opened Tuesday night. You wouldn’t know it, unless you happened to catch Shepherd’s casual Instagram post at 7:30 that night. Which, for the record, wasn’t uploaded until mid-shift, after friends and family had already settled in and started chowing down.
“Little known fact: @ubpreserv is now open for business. Montrose has a new restaurant. #SoonMeansNow,” the caption read. Some food writers have called it an opening with “little” or “zero” fanfare. Shepherd is not among those people.
“I’ve seen that a few times and I don’t know what that means. We kind of just quietly did it,” Shepherd tells PaperCity. UB Preserv was originally set to open in April. The chef feels that there is no use in declaring dates, and that goes for his upcoming steakhouse, Georgia James, which has been projected to open in July.
Shepherd isn’t ready to lock that date down just yet. And he doesn’t seem likely to in the future either.
“I think I found a new way of telling people. ‘Hey, guess what? We opened a restaurant today,’ ” Shepherd cracks.
To the outside, the debut may have seemed muted. But beyond the doors, inside the space, early diners were delighting in the new dishes. Think queso fundido with blood sausage and pork fat tortillas, wok-fried collar greens and crawfish & noodles. Shepherd also stayed true to his promise, delivering an epic Seafood Tower of Power with Valentina butter roasted oysters, steamed singing pink scallops and more.
“I think people are ecstatic about the food, the place, the staff. It’s genuine and natural,” Shepherd says. “It’s a brand new restaurant that’s totally different from Underbelly. By tenfold.”
That means no restrictions on sourcing ingredients. That means a restaurant that doesn’t change menus so quickly that it gives you whiplash, wishing for last week’s stunner.
“There’s nothing on here that we would have done at Underbelly, for the most part,” Shepherd adds, gesturing to a menu. “Maybe a couple of things, but that’s just showcasing the heritages that we know and love.”
The chef is at a table by the door. The 80-seat restaurant is considerably smaller, more intimate than its predecessor. But you can see the family resemblance, the tables, the chairs, the books taken from the OG — Underbelly.
Visually, it’s like sitting in a microcosm of Underbelly. Food-wise, it’s a whole new world.
David Chang Protege Power
“Nick’s here, it’s a different set of eyes. He’s definitely had different life experiences than I’ve had,” Shepherd says.
Wong has experience with products Shepherd’s never used, and vice versa. “Two new sets of eyes on things — that creates better dishes, I think,” Shepherd says.
As with all his pursuits, Shepherd had to choose someone and something that would be eye opening for him. UB Preserv has given Wong, a California native, a chance to discover whole new dishes.
Space City is a new experience for Wong, the destination of his cross-country road trip from California. Here, he’s got the opportunity to make food he’s more interested in making, that of the hyper-diverse variety.
“I feel like there’s less boundaries,” Wong says. Gulf seafood is new to him, and he’s in for more surprises with Southern food.
Beyond the style of cuisine, there’s a whole new set of ingredients for him to play around with. “You have strawberries in February,” Wong laughs. “I had my first mulberry.”
Another first: some serious barbecue equipment. “For me at least, having a smoker. I’m really excited to get on that,” Wong says.
With UB Preserv, Shepherd and Wong promised to explore and honor all different cultures as they built — and build — their menu. “It’s an ever-growing thing for us. We’re starting with some of the things that we’ve known, the cultures that we’ve known. We’re going to grow into the ones that are growing as well,” Shepherd says.
You’ll find ethnic backbones of all types on UB Preserv’s existing menu, but there’s more to come. Some as-yet uncharted territory?
“Definitely the Nigerian population. Ethiopian. That’s something we’ve never delved into,” Shepherd says.
Any dish at UB Preserv will take your tastebuds on a trek, but don’t expect a recommendation from Shepherd.
“People ask me all night long, ‘What should I get?’ ” the chef says. “You’ve got to choose your own path in life. I’m not going to tell you those things.”
UB Preserv’s only got two days under its belt, so it’s too soon to tell what the outstanding outlier will be, the most daring-turned-darling dishes. At Underbelly, you could argue that title went to the Korean braised goat and dumplings, now available at The Hay Merchant.
That favorite started out as a placeholder, only to become a dish that you simply couldn’t take off.
“We can sit back and talk like this, what’s going to be the next goat dish,” Shepherd says. “But is it going to be the turkey neck? Is it going to be the crisp rice salad? I don’t know that yet.”
It could even fall on the work-shopped brunch menu. “We’re figuring that out right now. You can see the scribbles,” Shepherd says, tapping his pen to the page.
UB Preserv’s Unexpected Menu
The chefs selected this menu format because it’s so open-ended. You don’t have to commit to one cuisine.
It won’t be a cart service, but a checklist. “I want a little bit of Szechuan, a little bit of Chinese, Mexican, Southern, Indian. I want a little bit of Middle Eastern. I want a little bit of everything,” Shepherd tells PaperCity.
It’s back to brainstorming time, and Wong’s off to the kitchen to learn how to cook up Boudain shumai. Unexpected, as always. Does Shepherd do it for the shock value?
“Hell no. I do it because it’s right.”