Big changes are brewing in the Ibiza/Catalan empire run by chef Charles Clark and his wine-guru partner, Grant Cooper. The news most likely to set the Houston restaurant community on its crunchy pig's ear is the departure of Catalan's founding chef, Chris Shepherd, to start his own restaurant this fall.
Shepherd's project, to be called Underbelly, will occupy space adjacent to the upcoming Hay Merchant craft beer bar at Westheimer & Waugh. Shepherd will partner with Anvil's Bobby Heugel and Kevin Floyd on the real estate deal for the sprawling property, which will put him in the chef-owner class for the first time in his career. His 180-to-200 seat restaurant will feature its own full-scale butcher shop so that Shepherd can further explore his fascination with "whole animal" cookery, a bent that has made Catalan one of the most interesting and intensely local restaurants in town since it opened in 2006.
The parting, Shepherd and his mentors Clark and Cooper are at pains to point out, is amicable with a tinge of bittersweet. "He's a big fish," cracks Clark. "We knew from the outset we could only keep him in line for five years, and he's a man of his word. It's a natural step for him."
"We don't want to lose our bond with Chris," notes Cooper. "It's emotional, it's hard because we admire Chris so much. We were actually kind of tearing up last week. It's like you don't want to send your kid off to college, but you know it's the best thing."
When Shepherd leaves in May, Clark and Cooper say they'll rebrand Catalan as a different concept with a chef they likely will be ready to announce in mid-March. Lest the move be interpreted as a repudiation of the direction Shepherd has taken at Catalan, Clark and Cooper frame it as more of a salute to him and the success he has made of the restaurant. "Chris can keep doing farm-to-table, he can keep his own identity," says Clark. "All the things he's done at Catalan--the Sunday Suppers, the culinary tours, the farm-driven menu--we feel grateful to have been a part of it, and we thought it was unjust to try to continue it without him."
Of course, it's not unheard of for a high-profile restaurant to continue on course when a founding chef leaves. (Ubuntu, the rarefied vegetarian mecca in Napa, is but one prominent example, where Aaron London has replaced original chef Jeremy Fox to excellent notices.) But doing so, especially when the restaurant in question is as locally beloved an institution as Catalan, can invite an unending barrage of comparisons. If nothing else, trying something different guarantees a fresh bump of publicity and excitement.
The transformation of Catalan into something new will proceed at the same time Clark and Cooper are gutting the old Tony Mandola space on West Gray, in the River Oaks Shopping Center, and turning it into Brasserie 19. They're shooting for an April opening date for the casual French brasserie concept done American style, with a chef they're not quite ready to announce yet. (He or she is "kinda-sorta" from Houston, admits Clark, the only hint he is willing to drop.)
Cooper promises a few new "wine wrinkles people are going to be shocked at" for Brasserie 19, in addition to some well-priced house-label bottlings that will include a Sancerre-type white, a Pinot Noir and a Cabernet. Cooper and Clark have been important trendsetters in wine service in Houston, pioneering a user-friendly price structure just above retail that has caught on with other savvy local operators, starting with Reef's Bryan Caswell and Bill Floyd. Look for more details on Brasserie 19 and its wine program to be announced sometime in March.
Shepherd, for his part, is reluctant to talk too much about his plans for Underbelly, where construction will start in 3 weeks. He's still part of the Catalan team for the next three months. "I finish what I started, and I won't stop," he explains.
He does mention that at Underbelly he'll be focusing on local ingredients as he does at Catalan. Already a well-known bard of the pig, Shepherd plans to expand his expertise by traveling to Texas A&M's Department of Animal Science to learn more about breaking down sides of beef.
He also reports that Underbelly and Hay Merchant, somewhat surprisingly, will be separate entities "next door to each other,"and that the spaces will not connect. The former Chances bar location is actually two structures spliced together, and the announcement of Underbelly answers the question of just how a craft beer bar was going to utilize all that space.
Shepherd is cagey about how the two establishments will relate. Underbelly's beverage program will focus on wine, with a small beer selection; and Shepherd will have input on Hay Merchant's food, although whether as a consultant or actual, on-site producer remains up in the air. The two operations will most emphatically not share a menu. "You won't be able to come in the restaurant and say, hey, I want a dish I had next door at the bar," says Shepherd. "It can't work that way."
Why the name Underbelly? It could be taken as a sly allusion to the sugar-cane-speared cubes of pork belly, zapped with Steen's cane syrup, that made such a splash when Catalan first opened. Shepherd seems as delighted as a kid to suggest the name conjures up "the seedy side of things, things not seen. And it fits the neighborhood!"
For the moment, anyway. With the advent of Hay Merchant and Underbelly across the street from the new Bryan Caswell/Robb Walsh project, El Real Tex-Mex restaurant, the axis of Lower Westheimer from Anvil past Montrose Boulevard is undergoing a gentrification of sorts. The spiffy Royal Oaks bar opened recently on this stretch of road, and chef Tyson Cole, of Austin's celebrated Uchi, reportedly has had his sights on the old Felix space for a Houston location. Those louche, raffish blocks around the intersection of Montrose and Westheimer may never be quite the same.