New York Times food critic Pete Wells is taking on Houston this week. And, as far as the local cuisine goes, the notoriously snarky reviewer has nothing but kinds words.
Best known for his damning 2012 review of Guy Fieri's American Kitchen & Bar in Times Square, Wells focuses on Justin Yu's Oxheart and Chris Shepherd's Underbelly in Houston — both of which are enjoying healthy doses of national attention after scoring recent nominations from the James Beard Foundation.
"Oxheart is one of the growing number of places around the country that are rearranging our notions of what fine dining means."
The critic kicks off his Space City rundown with a look at Yu's unique take on turkey and follows through with a stream of praise for Oxheart's thoughtfully-simple decor, diverse wine list and "one of the most inventive and delicious salads" he's had recently.
"Oxheart is one of the growing number of places around the country that are rearranging our notions of what fine dining means," Wells explains. "It is also an example of the growing ambition of the Houston dining scene."
Across town, Underbelly continues to impress with its trademark "story of Houston food."
"For Underbelly’s chef and owner, Chris Shepherd," Wells writes, "it is a story of many cultures and cuisines meeting in a place that has become the most ethnically diverse metropolitan region in the United States."
"It is also an example of the growing ambition of the Houston dining scene."
Wells shouts out Shepherd's Korean braised goat with dumplings, Vietnamese-style pork meatballs, cornmeal-crusted chicken livers and long-forgotten desserts like vinegar pie, "a relic of a recipe from an age when lemons weren’t sold year-round."
While Oxheart escaped virtually snark-free in the review, Wells noted a few minor misses at Underbelly, such as a bland duck confit and a limited selection of local wines.
But who need's a perfect score when a food critic says your restaurant is helping to make Houston "one of the country’s most exciting places to eat"?