It's salumi season at Underbelly, where many of the cured meats fashioned and hung by chef Chris Shepherd and crew have ripened enough to serve. Last week, for the first time since the restaurant's March opening, Shepherd offered a salumi board with an impressive selection of six cuts, including translucent strips of lardo (cured fat from a heritage-breed Mangalitsa hog) gorgeously edged in beet.
The results tasted great, from the gamy complexity of wild boar sausage done Tuscan style, spangled with peppercorns and dots of fat, to emphatically salty prosciutto with nutty-tasting fat and that real-deal, pleasantly musty edge, as if it's been hanging in the rafters of some remote barn.
Brick-red coppa, a prosciutto-like product that was made from a Red Wattle hog, had a big, tart salty tang chased by some red pepper that bloomed on the tongue and kept going. Its hard, satiny finish seemed precisely right. Finocchiona, a hard Tuscan sausage, popped with whole fennel seeds. Lonza from the hog loin, sliced super thin and edged with delicate fat, came off like rarified ham.
And that glistening lardo rimmed so unexpectedly and ingeniously in beet? It was so lush I plucked it off its flatbread slice, rolled it up and ate it plain, the better to appreciate its full, fatty flavor.
If you think you wouldn't like to eat pure fat, try this lardo, and then we'll talk.
Better move fast, though: Shepherd's fans are likely to tear through the salumi supply all too quickly. So far he's been hoarding the stuff, portioning it out as a nightly salumi selection, but an entire boardful of cured meats may prove irresistible: friends of mine who rushed in to sample it on Day One were so taken with it they ordered a second one.
Part of the pleasure is the well-chosen condiments, all made in house: skinny pickled green beans, electrifying sweet-hot bread and butter pickles and a low-key fig mustard that's right in season, with the focus on the fruit rather than a searing mustard edge. Like them? Check out the wall of pickles and preserves on your way out, which are for sale to take home.
To go with your salumi, Underbelly's wine guy, Matthew Pridgen, may suggest a rosato of Montepulciano from Inama, a terrific Italian producer from the Veneto. Take him up on it. It's perfect with these rich, salty meats, and refreshing enough for summer.
From the dining room, you can see the glassed-in curing room with its sausages and haunches and legs and jowls suspended in temperature- and humidity-controlled splendor. It's a far cry from Shepherd's initial salumi undertakings back at Catalan, his previous restaurant, where he hung and cured on a catch-as-catch can basis, dodging city health inspectors as he worked out his methodology, and his magic.
Shepherd was one of the city's first wave of salumi-makers, the guys I think of as the Class of 2009. Justin Basye at Voice and then Stella Sola, Ryan Pera at The Grove and Randy Rucker at Rainbow Lodge all helped get the cured-meats movement going in Houston back then, often working out of coolers or odd closets or cramped curing boxes they designed themselves.
Things have come a long way in three years. Now Pera's elegant array of cured meats is a big draw at Revival Market in the Heights, and Shepherd's new restaurant has its own dedicated butchery room for the whole, locally raised animals that end up on diners' plates or in that gleaming, state-of-the art curing room.
Houston-made salumi is finally coming of age.
(Underbelly, 1100 Westheimer, 713-528-9800. L: Monday — Friday 11 a.m. — 3 p.m.; D: Monday — Thursday 5 p.m. — 10 p.m.; Friday & Saturday 5 p.m. — 11 p.m.)