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C hef/restaurateur Chris Shepherd's latest endeavor, Georgia James Tavern, nestles on the ground floor of the Market Square Tower downtown, beneath 40 floors of luxury, high-rise rental residences. It's the casual cousin of Shepherd's Montrose steakhouse — both, named in homage to his parents. Chef de cuisine Matt "Tally" Coburn (Underbelly, Georgia James), has created a menu for the Tavern that's fun yet true to every tenet of the Underbelly Hospitality brand. His team works with local producers to develop technique-driven dishes that weave together the diverse cultural foodways that make up Houston's restaurant scene, in a space designed by Jana Erwin and Audrey Tehauno of Nest Interiors Design Group. The glamorous interiors nod to old Hollywood, with marquee-style lighting above the bar and black-and-white photos of stars from a bygone era. Elegant vintage hand-blown glass sconces line the foxed-mirror walls, with marble-topped tables pulled up to cozy tufted leather banquettes in the dimly lit room. Georgia James Tavern is currently open for dinner only, with lunch and brunch to follow at a later date. The first dinner menu is well-edited, full of decadent dishes such as baked pimento cheese — a hot, oozing rendition of the Southern staple served with white toast points, pickled okra, and country ham ($18). The Viet-Cajun confit chicken wings are a sweet-and- salty bar favorite inspired by the Houston Viet-Cajun crawfish craze; the meaty wings are lightly salted and cured, slowly cooked in their own fat, then fried and tossed with candied peanuts and a fish sauce/garlic/lime juice Cajun glaze ($18). The warm spinach salad takes me back to the Magic Pan with its fresh spinach, oyster mushrooms, red onion, crispy country ham (in lieu of bacon), tart Granny Smith apples, and candied almonds, all tossed with an apple-cider Dijon vinaigrette ($16). Move onto sandwiches, from a 44 Farms ground- chuck burger ($25) to Tally's Cuban, a pressed roasted-pork sandwich with yucca fritta served with an island lime- laced mayo sauce ($18). Of course, given its steakhouse relations, it's no surprise that a cast-iron Wagyu rib eye ($85) makes an appearance, along with a flavorful Thai-inspired hearth-roasted half-chicken, paired with coconut sticky-rice patties, green papaya salad, and peanuts ($36). Or opt for the hearth-roasted gulf fish, served with seafood-studded Charleston brown rice and a preserved lemon remoulade ($40). The desserts are cheeky and clever, such as pastry chef Victoria Dearmond's chocolate- pecan pie cake, a mix-up of decadent TAKE ON A TAVERN By Laurann Claridge chocolate cake layered with pecan praline buttercream topped with crumbled pie crust and praline pieces ($12), as well as her deconstructed key lime pie created as a custard parfait with graham-cracker crumbs atop a cool lime-curd custard with spirals of marshmallow meringue ($10). Georgia James Tavern, 777 Preston St., 281.846.6938 georgiajamestavern. com. Laurann Claridge Baked pimento cheese, toast points and country ham Slab salad with Shropshire blue cheese, black pepper buttermilk Chris Shepherd's new Georgia James Tavern 124

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