If you look up when you first walk inside Underbelly, the almost-open restaurant from Chris Shepherd, the first thing you'll see is an antique plow hanging over the hostess stand.
"It's the one thing I knew I wanted when I started thinking about the restaurant," Shepherd tells CultureMap. "It's a reminder that it's all about the farmer."
Underbelly doesn't open until March 5, but the Wine Bar at Underbelly debuted on Friday, filling the slim space with former regulars from Catalan (where Shepherd previously drew devoted foodies) and other assorted foodies. (For a sneak peek at some Underbelly menu items, click on the photo set.)
It's the kind of dish that seems weird until you realize you've eaten the whole thing. I think another name for that is "drunk food."
The slim triangular bar area sits off of a hallway connecting the entrance with the main dining area, with wood accents abounding inside and a small patio. The dining room is still cordoned off, but from certain barstools one can see through the wine storage space straight back into an open kitchen that seems to be a central part of the room.
That kitchen, of course is already up and running, even if only for bar bites. A large part of the bar menu is select proteins, including pickled quail eggs, smoked Gulf oysters and potted shrimp, all served in squat little mason jars.
The Vienna sausages, were uncanny in their salty flavor resemblance to the canned classic, although with a crisper casing and thicker texture. It's the kind of dish that seems weird until you realize you've eaten the whole thing. I think another name for that is "drunk food."
For something a little more refined than jars, the bar menu also offers a Texas cheese plate and an incredible pork terrine served with an extra-spicy mustard.
The wine list runs for several thick pages — long enough that it barely fits in a binder clip. But what can you really learn about a restaurant from the wine list? Actually, a lot.
Like the wine list at Catalan, this document is part catalog, part textbook and part manifesto, often breaking up the varietals with anecdotes about drinking or funny treatises about sulfites, the re-emergence of keg wine and why only one Texas wine made the list (most of them import their grapes from elsewhere, breaking Underbelly's family owned and operated winery criteria).
While the small family-owned winery list doesn't include many popular bottles and brands, Underbelly is also about to become the best restaurant in town to offer BYOB. For the admittedly steep corking fee of $15, customers can bring in any bottle that is not represented in Underbelly's cellars.
That flexibility with wine consumption goes the other way, too — because Underbelly does not have a liquor license, they are offering their bottles for retail sale as well, for 20 percent off the list prices.
What else did I learn from a trip to the Wine Bar? Mostly that I really can't wait to see the rest of what Chris Shepherd has up his sleeve.