Houstonians love Chris Shepherd. And why shouldn’t they? The James Beard Award winning chef-owner of Underbelly cheers for Houston sports team, raises a lot of money for charity, and serves as the go-to representative of Houston’s rising culinary scene for out-of-town media.
Houstonians also love steakhouses. In the last couple of years, the city has embraced B&B Butchers, spent more money at Steak 48 than they do at nightclubs (over $850,000 in liquor sales in December compared to just under $550,000 at Cle), and turned Ritual into the hottest restaurant in The Heights.
Combine the two — Chris Shepherd opening a steakhouse as the first manifestation of his new restaurant One Fifth — and the collective frenzy reaches a fever pitch. That’s without whatever added hype comes from the celebrity of one of Shepherd’s business partner in the venture, Houston Texans outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus, and the restaurant’s high-profile location, a converted church that was previously home to beloved fine dining restaurant Mark’s American Cuisine.
All of which is to say that people I’ve spoken with are coming to One Fifth with high expectations. It won’t receive the usual patience afforded a new restaurant. The typical “I can see where they’re going with these ideas but the execution isn’t quite there yet” allowances are hard to justify with a veteran chef at the helm and prices that are on par with top destinations like Pappas Bros and B&B Butchers.
With all that in mind I rounded up three friends and booked a table for One Fifth’s opening night. Thankfully, we found that Shepherd and chef de cuisine Nick Fine are off to a strong start.
Changes from the Mark’s days are immediately visible upon entering the space. A long bar has been built down one wall, and the restaurant’s former bar has been converted into a raw bar — the one aspect that will unify all five of One Fifth’s manifestations. The raw bar’s large refrigerator features hanging cuts of meat and baskets of oysters. It may not be as visually imposing as Ritual’s in-house butcher shop, but it makes a clear statement about what diners are here to consume.
The other major change to the design is the installation of a lowered ceiling above the dining room that contains individual Edison bulbs on cords. The building’s vaulted ceiling helped Mark’s earn a reputation as one of Houston’s most romantic dining destinations, and this change definitely neuters that affect. Instead of being able to look out over the entire dining room, diners in the space’s second story loft mostly just see the top of the new structure.
Once we settled into our seats, my friends and I turned our attention to the menu. Although Shepherd keeps things conventional by making clear distinctions between appetizers and main courses, which has never been the case at Underbelly, the menu offers a number of dishes that offer a distinctive twist from the fare served at more traditional steakhouses.
Those unique dishes start with the raw bar. Standards like oysters (both Gulf and East Coast), shrimp cocktail, and fresh crab all have spots on the menu, but the uni panna cotta stands out as something different. Made with, in Shepherd’s words, “a fuckton of uni,” fresh uni (sea urchin) is mixed in with the gelatin as the dish sets. Then the dish gets topped with more uni.
Taken together, each bite is infused with so much sea urchin flavor, a sweet brininess that’s reminiscent of the way of the smell of salt air on a beach, that we fought over the last couple of bites. No wonder the chef told us it’s his favorite dish on the menu.
Chicken liver mousse proved to be another standout. Rich and creamy with just a hint of typically metallic tang, Shepherd’s version of the dish wouldn’t be out of place in a French restaurant. Adding a little of the included strawberry black pepper preserves offers a little sweetness to balance out the rich flavors.
Moving on to entrees, the menu not only lists steaks by their cut and weight (as one would expect) but also by their ranch, aging method, and preparation. Just as Underbelly offers a number of large entrees for the table, One Fifth serves three 32-ounce or larger steaks that are designed to be shared by two or more people. Large parties who order more than one can expect to have them delivered on massive wood planks.
Trying to balance a beef craving with some respect for the bill we were racking up, our group opted for the 32-ounce, bone-in, New York strip from 44 Farms. Seared in cast iron, the steak arrived with a crispy, well-seasoned crust and at the requested medium rare temperature. Given the appetizers we had already consumed and three side dishes, that might have been enough food, but we indulged with a wood-roasted snapper and lamb Wellington.
Served with clams in a chili-infused broth, the snapper will satisfy any pescetarians who happen to wander into One Fifth, but, even though it was cooked to a nice medium, it was clearly the least-favorite entree.
On the other hand, the lamb Wellington emerged as the night’s star — other than the uni panna cotta, natch. Wrapped in a flaky puff pastry and cooked to a juicy medium rare, the lamb offered just the right amount of funky flavor. One of our diners, a native Englishwoman, declared that it made her properly homesick.
Sides offer a similarly offbeat take on steakhouse favorites. Twice baked potatoes arrived covered in cheese and bacon. Lamburger helper, a one-time Underbelly classic, offers a meaty alternative to traditional mac and cheese. Even the cauliflower with goat cheese is so rich and creamy that it undoes whatever virtue one expected to earn by ordering an actual vegetable.
Even after all that, One Fifth’s menu still offers lots of reasons to go back. We missed out on the night’s special of roasted beef neck (an oxtail like dish, our served said), but the menu offers lamb neck as a regular item. Texas wagyu strip loin and wood-roasted chicken also looked interesting when they went past the table.
We also passed on dessert, but pastry director Victoria Dearmond offers a number of tempting options. A one-and-a-half pound apple pie with cheddar ice cream looks like a highlight, but beet cheesecake and chocolate layer cake seemed appealing, too.
The wine list offers options for all price points: everything from Gamay priced in the low $40s to big budget Bordeaux. Whiskey drinkers will find splurges like Pappy Van Winkle 20 and Yamazaki 12 alongside less expensive pours. Cocktails range from $12 to $20 (for a champagne cocktail with real champagne).
Comparison to Killen's STQ
Of course, Shepherd isn’t the only big-time Houston chef who’s currently put a twist on steakhouse conventions. Ronnie Killen is engaged in a similar project at Killen’s STQ, which is only about 15 minutes down Westheimer from One Fifth. Comparisons between the two are so inevitable that Texas Monthly editor Pat Sharpe made one before One Fifth had even opened.
Based on one meal, they feel like very different restaurants. Both deliver excellent experiences that are more intimate than large restaurants like Vic & Anthony’s or Steak 48. Killen’s use of smoke and wood fire gives STQ’s dishes a rustic quality that sets it apart from One Fifth’s more refined preparations and decor. Which one diners prefer will be more a matter of taste than of execution.
Although seats at the bar are reserved for walk-in diners, most Houstonians will probably want to wait until next week to make their first visit. The Super Bowl crowds have already claimed most of the tables for this weekend.
Just don’t delay for too long. On July 31, One Fifth Steak goes away forever. It reopens on September 1 as One Fifth Romance Languages.
One Fifth, 1658 Westheimer; 5 pm to 11 pm everyday.