Chris Shepherd and the Underbelly Hospitality team are ready to put their spin on Texas cuisine. Wild Oats, the company’s newest restaurant, opens tomorrow (Friday, February 11) at the Houston Farmers Market.
Led by chef-partner Nick Fine, Wild Oats aims to tell the story of Texas food, just as Shepherd told the story of Houston food at the original Underbelly. That means nods to the Southern, Mexican, and ranch-style influences that come together to create traditional Texan cuisine.
“It’s my version of a love letter to Texas,” Fine tells CultureMap. “I want to tell the story of the Texas I know and love. It’s a really passionate project for me.”
While Fine won’t be smoking briskets — he notes that Pinkerton’s Barbecue is just down the street — he is putting his spin on seafood staples like campecha, shrimp and grits, and redfish on the half shell. Those with carnivorous habits may opt for dishes like short rib fajitas, wood-grilled chicken or steak, or a crispy pork shank.
Starters include an updated version of Underbelly's signature crispy vegetables, steak tartare, and "Haven-style" shrimp corn dogs, a tribute to the farm-to-table restaurant operated by Shepherd's friend chef Randy Evans. Pastry director Victoria Dearmond's desserts are similarly traditional, ranging from banana pudding and peach cobbler to a Texas sheet cake that diners finish themselves courtesy of sides of fudge, candied pecans, and sprinkles. Wild Oats will also offer the company's first-ever children's menu.
Overall, the dishes should be familiar to most Texans. Wild Oats hopes to stand out with the quality of its ingredients and by executing its dishes at the highest level.
“My idea [for] the menu is for everybody to get it,” Fine says. “I don’t want everyone to be like ‘whoa, he’s doing all this crazy stuff.’ I just want everything to be really good food but also technically really sound.”
Wild Oats’ chicken fried steak illustrates Fine’s overall approach. The chef says he researched the dish extensively to create a version that justifies its $42 price.
That starts with using Texas wagyu beef from R-C Ranch, topping the fried patties with jalapeño-bacon gravy, and serving sides of mashed potatoes and wood-grilled green beans. Fine's chicken fried steak is served as two smaller pieces to ensure it stays crispy. Similarly, the bacon-jalapeño gravy pays homage to the tradition of cooking chicken fried steak in bacon grease. Still, he knows people will have high expectations for a fancy chicken fried steak, and he's ready to meet that meet challenge.
“I was talking to Nina [Quincy], our director of operations,” Fine says about the dish. “[She said], no one will have a problem with [the price] if it’s the best chicken fried steak they’ve ever had. It’s got to be technically sound and done with the best product possible. I hope that’s what we’re doing.”
To help achieve serving the best, most technically sound dishes possible, Wild Oats will utilize a custom-built wood-burning grill created by legendary pitmaster Aaron Franklin of Austin’s Franklin Barbecue. The modular design allows for steaks to be seared on high heat, vegetables to be slow roasted over coals, and chickens to be hung above the embers. Franklin and Shepherd have been friends for years, and Franklin always draws the longest line at the annual Southern Smoke Festival that Shepherd organizes.
“We’re not in the business of making grills, but I cook a lot with fire,” Franklin said in a statement. “I’m pretty handy with it, as it turns out. If a friend needs something, I’m pretty quick to design something. This is something we wanted to do for our friends. It’s designed to be able to utilize all aspects of the fire.”
The restaurant’s beverage program will feature Texas wines as about a quarter of the 60 selections. Cocktails will include a selection of staples like the paloma and ranch water alongside seasonal cocktails that utilize produce sourced from the market and a couple of frozens. The spirits list will focus on agave-based options as well as Texas-made products.
Designer Amanda Medsger has created a dining room with nods to Texas’ different regions and eras in its history, including vintage decor from legendary Houston bar Gilley’s and a display of Stetson hats.
“I think all of our restaurants have been cool, but this is the prettiest restaurant I’ve ever been in. I love it,” Fine says. “If you had the fanciest Luby’s mixed with your grandma’s ranch house, it’s so fancy and so cool.”
This year will see lots of changes for Underbelly Hospitality. Last month, the company closed its craft beer bar Hay Merchant, temporarily relocated its luxurious steakhouse Georgia James to the space occupied by One Fifth, and opened Underbelly Burger at the Houston Farmers Market. In the coming months, Georgia James will move to its new, permanent home in the Regent Square mixed-use development where it will be joined by Pastore, a new Italian-American restaurant modeled after One Fifth Red Sauce. Also coming soon will be Everlong Bar & Hideaway, a new concept for the space formerly occupied by UB Preserv.