Chef Chris Shepherd’s restaurant group Underbelly Hospitality will open its latest restaurant, Wild Oats, in Houston Farmers Market Friday — and chef Nick Fine will take the helm.
Fine, Shepherd’s partner and culinary director, said the new establishment (2520 Airline Drive, Ste C-315) will lean into Texas cultures and native ingredients to create a menu that attempts nostalgia and hearkens back to the chef’s history.
“I want this to be my love letter to Texas,” Fine, 39, said.
Fine has crafted an upscale version of the quail popper — one of his and his dad’s favorite hunting snacks — for Wild Oats, stuffing the quail with jalapeño cornbread and whipped-cream cheese before wrapping it in bacon. He’ll also serve wagyu chicken fried steak — a featured dish inspired by the cattle drive from Bandora, Texas to Kansas. Instead of frying it in bacon grease as the cowboys did, Fine will top the battered steak in a bacon poblano gravy.
Wild Oats will feature bites like fried pickles with pimento cheese, Texas-style chili with all the fix-ins, and flash-fried seasonal vegetables tossed in mole from fellow market vendor Los Cavazos. Fire will be a major element, thanks to a grill designed by Aaron Franklin, pitmaster and owner of Franklin Barbecue, and his team — allowing Wild Oats to sow roast, char, smoke, or grill their ingredients and meats the Texas way.
The drink menu will be robust, with a list of around 60 wines from around the world — a quarter of those with ties or roots in Texas. The cocktail list, also with an emphasis on state spirits, will offer drinks like the Paloma, ranch water, a frozen Cadillac margarita (a nod to the first margarita machine born in Texas), and seasonal cocktails using ingredients from other vendors in the farmers market.
The decor, which Fine describes as “country-chic,” will also tell a story.
Designed by Amanda Medsger, the restaurant theme strives to illustrate the many aspects of Texas, with photos by Houston photographer Ralph Smith, decor from the original Gilley’s Club in Pasadena, and Stetson cowboy hats hanging on the wall. Colorful table cloths used on three large tables will pay homage to the Texas Chili Queens, the group of women who often sold their food in a courtyard in San Antonio in the 1880s, only to be later credited with introducing Texas to chili and Tex-Mex.
The chef said both he and Shepherd had wanted to open a restaurant at the farmers market for a while, but Fine was looking for something to call his own.
The married father of three, who was raised in San Antonio, said the restaurant is his way of finally “setting up shop” and rooting himself in Texas after years of traveling around the world. Starting at a young age, Fine moved around to places like California, Germany, and Australia before returning to the Houston area when he was in middle school. At 18, he grew restless and left for Texas Tech University before venturing off to Yellowstone National Park to become a park ranger.
But his dreams didn’t go as planned. Upon his arrival, he was directed to a restaurant kitchen to wash dishes, and only after a line cook left did Fine get his shot at cooking, he said. He quickly fell in love and decided to give up his park ranger dreams and return to Texas to become a chef.
Now that he’s “planted and sewed his wild oats,” Fine is back in Texas for good, and with his own restaurant, he’s ready to make his love letter to his home state public.
“This restaurant is for everyone,” Fine said. “It’s a place where my kids can come, and I would love for businesses to come. I just want this to be commonplace for Houstonians and everyone in Texas.”
Wild Oats be open from 5 p.m to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday through Saturday. Brunch options are coming soon.