Now's the time to taste how the city's global fare is merging with creative new takes on local food and cooking.
Text: Robb Walsh
August 15, 2013
1 of 6Photo: Ryann Ford
Healthy Houston Dining
Houston is famous for fajitas and barbecue, but it's also one of the most diverse American cities. Take the average salad: Within a block, you'll find a Vietnamese "summer delight," a gyro-topped Greek, and an Indian chaat—all a tasty change of pace from the familiar chef, Cobb, and Louis. Dining around H-town is now a modern multicultural adventure.
Pictured: Chef Bryan Caswell of Reef
2 of 6Photo: Jody Horton
Chef Bryan Caswell has taken a leading role in the Gulf's sustainable-seafood movement by turning underutilized bycatch into delectable ceviches, salads, and entrées. His restaurant, Reef, was also one of the first in Houston to offer reef-specific Gulf oysters. These include hand-selected bivalves from once-legendary Galveston oyster appellations like Pepper Grove and Ladies Pass and rack-raised oysters from the new experimental oyster farm at Point aux Pins in Mobile Bay. Try them in Reef's Baked Oysters with Swiss Chard, Lime Pickle, and Asiago Breadcrumbs. Caswell is also experimenting with mahimahi roe bottarga, an homage to the famous Sardinian dried salted fish roe.
Pictured: Oysters at Reef
3 of 6Photo: Julie Soefer
The menu at Underbelly celebrates the city's wild mix of flavors—and its intersection of farming, ranching, and fishing cultures—filtered through a New American lens, courtesy of chef Chris Shepherd.
Shepherd does all of his own butchering and charcuterie, and you'll find his cuts peppered among local farm fare. Gulf bycatch (fish like rainbow runner, sea bream, and tripletail that often get mistakenly caught in commercial nets and thrown away) are matched with Southern chowchow or okra masala.
After dining, pick up a jar of the restaurant's house-made preserves or pickles on your way out.
Pictured: Chef Chris Shepherd of Underbelly
4 of 6Photo: Ralph Smith
The Pass & Provisions
In a repurposed vintage brick building, two New York City chefs have built two distinct eateries sharing a single ultramodern kitchen. The Pass is an elegant fine-dining restaurant featuring nightly tasting menus. Provisions has a casual bar with a community table, an inviting outdoor space, and a wood-burning pizza oven. The menu offers thoughtful, technique-driven food while highlighting the deliciousness of simple ingredients. The chilled pea soup is a standout on the vegetable menu—it's served with curried yogurt and mint.
From the hot and sweet popcorn snack to the mustardy Granny Smith apple pickles that top sandwiches, there are delicious surprises at every turn in this sleek Indian café.
James Beard Award nominee Anita Jaisinghani named her new restaurant "Pondicheri" after the southern Indian town (now called Puducherry) that she frequently visited as a child. The cuisine reflects a love of a wide range of flavors from all over India, focusing on snack food, or chaat. The barley salad with beets, walnuts, and mint is stunning, and vegans love the Vishnu thali (sampler platter) with a kokum fruit, curry leaf, and coconut curry; Brussels sprouts; smoked eggplant; daily dal; sambhar; and carrot paratha.
Pictured: A sampler platter at Pondicheri
6 of 6Photo courtsey of Phoenicia Specialty Foods/Doris Ting
Phoenicia Specialty Foods
The downtown location of Phoenicia Specialty Foods occupies two floors of a block-long building, offering food lovers a Willy Wonka--like setting with 15,000 items from more than 50 countries. A deli houses dozens of varieties of olives, feta, and charcuterie. Salads include anything from octopus to four kinds of roasted eggplant, and there's herring and sprats along with salmon and white fish in the smoked-fish case. When it's time for dessert, the bakery has a dozen varieties of baklava, as well as éclairs, fresh bread, Danish pastries, and espresso.
Pictured: Lamb shanks at Phoenicia Specialty Foods