Underbelly and The Hay Merchant Make Sweeping Changes To Food & Beverage Offerings—Updated

For five years, Underbelly’s theme has been, “The Story of Houston Food”—and the definition of what ingredients qualified for use has been limited to products in and near Houston. Additionally, Underbelly’s butchery and use of whole animals—including cattle—has driven much of the menu. Since James Beard Award-winning chef Chris Shepherd also oversees the food program of The Hay Merchant next door (both are located at 1100 Westheimer), the same rules have applied there.

There’s been another truism: under Shepherd (a former sommelier) and wine director Matthew Pridgen, Underbelly has been predominantly known as a place for wine, while The Hay Merchant was almost strictly a beer bar under the direction of Kevin Floyd. While that all remains true, the big news is that both establishments are adding spirits and cocktails.

Update, 6/27/2017, 7:58 a.m.: We’ve been informed that—as usual—it’s taking more time than expected for liquor licenses to be issued. Therefore, Underbelly and The Hay Merchant are now anticipating rolling out their new cocktail programs mid-July.

The cocktail program is being developed by One Fifth’s Westin Galleymore (formerly of Anvil Bar & Refuge), now promoted to spirits director, with an initial focus on Tiki drinks both classic—like the Mai Tai, and Missionary’s Downfall with white rum, pineapple, lime, peach, honey and mint—and original, such as One Eye Sailing with absinthe, green tea, coconut and lime

Gochujang Roasted Fish Collar at Underbelly
Underbelly’s focus on international cuisines prevalent in Houston will deepen. Pictures: Gochujang Roasted Fish Collar Ssam, a new dish on the menu. Photo by Julie Soefer

Regarding the food program changes, the emphasis—which starts June 20—shifts to Houston’s melting pot of cuisines as well as providing overall greater variety on the roughly 20-item menu. “No one wants a giant beef shank in the middle of a hot Houston summer,” Shepherd was quoted as saying in the press release.

Through the summer, the menu will feature more fish (sourced not just from the Gulf now, but all the way up the eastern coast to Virginia) and vegetables. A Seafood Tower has been added that will showcase ceviches, crudos and dishes inspired by international cuisines like crispy Royal Red shrimp atop Thai-style summer squash salad and fish collar Ssam.

Beef will be sourced from 44 Farms as needed rather than having longtime onsite butcher Javier Salvador cut up a whole steer. (Other animals, such as pigs and lamb, will continue bring brought in whole and butchered in the back kitchen dedicated to that purpose.)

Shepherd says he’s asking his staff to “dig deep” into Houston’s many cuisines, and while Underbelly is well known for its takes on Vietnamese and Korean food (such as its signature goat dumplings dish), if it’s important in Houston’s culture, it will be fair game. (As an example, Underbelly has long served a crispy pork schnitzel with red cabbage.)

The change in perspective follows many significant evolutions that have occurred since Underbelly and The Hay Merchant opened. At the time, the big story in fish was bycatch; perfectly good but lesser-known specimens discarded on the docks because catchers had no venues to sell them at. In Houston, P.J. Stoops was the most vocal advocate, going from restaurant to restaurant to sell the overlooked fish. Later, he and wife Apple took on the chef roles at Foreign Correspondents. For a time, Treadsack had a business named CHOAM to take over bycatch sales, then closed it due to its growing financial struggles. (Later they closed all their newest restaurants, too—including Foreign Correspondents.) Shepherd recognized Stoops’ efforts in the press release, saying “Thanks to his efforts and changes in sustainable fishing policy, bycatch is not as prevalent as it used to be.”

The addition of the cocktail program reflects other changes: Shepherd shaking off the image of being solely a wine-focused chef and Floyd being known as “the beer guy,” a stereotype he earned back when he was helping run Anvil Bar & Refuge along with cocktail guru Bobby Heugel. That was solidified when Floyd turned his attention to running The Hay Merchant.

HTown Slammer at Hay Merchant
One of the cocktails developed for The Hay Merchant’s new program is the H-Town Slammer with housemade Southern Comfort, sloe gin, orgeat, lime and orange soda. Underbelly has its own cocktail menu, too. Photo by Julie Soefer

Other big changes: in January of this year, Floyd and Heugel announced they were separating their business interests. Later that month, Shepherd, Floyd and business partner Whitney Mercilus (a linebacker with the Houston Texans) debuted One Fifth Steak with a full bar program, perhaps opening the door to showcase more diverse interests at their original businesses. Floyd says he’s rediscovered his love for spirits while Shepherd “has spent the last several years building a personal collection of old and interesting bourbons.”

Thanks to TABC restrictions, there are a few downsides to Underbelly and The Hay Merchant adding cocktail programs. Underbelly can no longer sell wine retail or allow BYOB, while The Hay Merchant has to abandon its growler fill program.

On the plus side, happy hour deals have been expanded. Underbelly will still offer half-price glasses of wine and there’s now a “covers” list of cocktails by Galleymore to match Shepherd’s bar bite homages. Where Shepherd pays homage to chefs around the country with the food, Galleymore will honor bars in other cities, such as Drink.Well in Austin, Barrel Proof in New Orleans and Yvonne’s in Boston. For its part, The Hay Merchant is keeping its 30 Beers for $3 program and adding a $4 beer-and-a-shot special.

In a business where the adage “evolve or die” is often a truism, the changes are likely to infuse both establishments with new vigor and pique the interest of diners and cocktail fans alike.

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