by Phaedra Cook
Photos by Chuck Cook
The Money Cat Brunch at Umai
8400 Bellaire Boulevard Houston, TX 77036
No reservations; waiting list available
9 am to 3 pm, Sundays only
Prices: $3 to $15 per item on the day visited
If you’ve kept up with the Houston food scene the last few years, you already know the names of the dream team behind The Money Cat Brunch at Umai: Ecky Prabanto (of Greenway Coffee & Tea and the forthcoming Blacksmith), David Buehrer (also of Greenway/Blacksmith), Justin Vann (Central Market), and Justin Yu (lately of the “Justin and Justin” dinners along with Vann). These young people are part of a terrific force that is relentlessly pushing Houston’s food culture forward.
A cryptic message and an address led me and my partner Chuck to Umai, a respected restaurant owned by Justin Yu’s father. Umai closed a few months ago (temporarily, according to the Houston Press). Today, however, it was open for a “friends and family” preview of The Money Cat Brunch.
Like many other Houston foodies, we have made the pilgrimage to Foreign & Domestic in Austin on multiple occasions. (Conversely, Ned Elliot of Foreign & Domestic recently made a pilgrimage to cook for Houstonians at one of the last Les Sauvages dinners.) The fare at The Money Cat brunch reminds me of the hearty, accessible, yet sophisticated fare at Foreign & Domestic, but with prominent Asian influences.
If someone asked me what my idea of a perfect brunch is, I might point to Xuco Xicana‘s excellent offerings of orange-scented pancakes, hot wings, crisp tortilla chips, excellent salsa and fried eggs that one can order on top of anything.
The Money Cat’s brunch is like someone reached into my subconscious and found desires I would never dare speak aloud.
Truthfully, The Money Cat had me at the menu, brilliantly marking non-spicy items with a frowny face. I could already tell this would be my kind of place.
Any fantasy meal should start with a Greenway Coffee offering, and The Money Cat played along nicely. I was soon enjoying an iced mocha made with Way Back When chocolate milk as the base.
Moments later, the charismatic Justin Vann was working his magic on us as well, suggesting Austin-based Eastciders Gold Top Cider (there’s that Houston/Austin connection again). It had fermented, darker notes that made other hard ciders that I’ve had seem simplistic. While that was appealing, there was no way I was turning down the opportunity to try a Michelada made with a base crafted by Bobby Heugel of Anvil Bar & Refuge. (In 2009, Bobby won a Michelada throwdown that he hosted at Anvil. Regrettably, it was before I started going there and I missed out.)
Just as I was pondering the ludicrousness of me having three beverages concurrently at the table, plates started arriving. First, there was David’s Cinnamon Twist glazed with smoked panela sugar. Yes, that’s David as in David Buehrer, the Greenway Coffee guy. He used to work in a donut shop. Who knew?
Up next was a plate of two rather large scallion biscuits. Somehow, they managed to both be flaky and slightly sticky on the outside, with a basting of Sriracha honey and accompanied by butter infused by the same.
I’m not sure my subconscious, even in its best moments, could have come up with some of the items that we ordered. A case in point: falling-off-the-bone oxtail in an unctuous broth imbued with lime juice. Fresh bean spouts cut any trace of fattiness nicely. Pho, meet Tom Yum.
I found myself using my hands a great deal during this meal, at one point picking up oxtail bones from the broth to suck off every tender morsel of beef. It struck me that I was using the same approach that I use during an Indian meal, where using one’s hands and scooping up food with naan instead of utensils adds to the sensuous experience of eating.
Tiny butterfish were deep fried whole and transformed into art. Served with seasoned coconut rice, half of a hard boiled egg and chili sauce, it was an inventive, hearty take on nasi lemak, a traditional Malaysian dish. While Chuck ate the whole darn thing, except the tail, I chose to use my hands to pull off delicate filets and dunk them into the chili sauce. I even ate the crunchy little fins.
With the mochas long gone, glasses of iced Yergacheffe were as refreshing and satisfying as any iced tea. In fact, Chuck mentioned that it would easily be a gateway coffee for iced tea drinkers that swore off the dark brew.
The one dish that told me this was real and not the diner’s version of Fantasy Football was the chickpea and eggplant stew, which fell flat for me. Even a hearty addition of harissa couldn’t save it. Perhaps it was just a matter of having to follow up all those other bold flavors. Those were some tough acts to follow for a comparatively mild dish.
I have found that there are some things that can make a meal transcendent that have nothing to do with the food. One of those things is having happy people around you. Our hosts were in their element and having an adventure. The joy in the air was almost palpable, and that made for the best spice of all.
I suggest you go sooner rather than later. If The Money Cat’s namesake bestows good fortune upon these hard working people, it will only be a few weeks before all the seats will be taken.