"I am honored and proud that so many people are making food like mine. American people are accepting Japanese food. That is good."
Japanese Fusion. Something really exciting is happening with Japanese food in America. Chefs are melding Japanese ingredients and techniques with Western cuisine. It is all fueled by Iron Chef (the best tv show ever because it presented chefs as gladiator heroes). The results of the new Japanese fusion have been amazing, at Japanese restaurants like Nobu and Megu in New York, Shibuya in Las Vegas, Mori in Los Angeles, Morimoto in Philadelphia, and Sea Saw in Scottsdale.
The only problem -- it isn't happening in Houston. The sushi scene here is better than it was, say, 20 years ago. But it is still pretty standard. Most Houston Japanese Restaurants ("HJRs") still have the oh-so-helpful table placard with photos of 20 different kinds of sushi. It always made me suspicious that the photos are not printed by the restaurant, but by some Japanese beer company. Why should Japanese beer companies dictate every sushi restaurant's menu? Most HJRs also have a selection of the same 10 or so sushi rolls, a list of the same handful of entrees -- teriyaki chicken, teriyaki salmon, katsu don, miso cod (stolen from Chef Nobu, but damn good) -- some noodle bowls, a selection of 2 - 3 sakes, and . . . that's about it.
But I love Japanese food. So does my 7-year old daughter. So we still go to HJRs.
Best sushi in Houston -- Kubo. Last night, my 7-year old begged to go to Kubo. No, they don't have robotic dancing furry animals. They do, however, do a great job with her two favorite foods -- sushi rice and raw salmon. Most HJRs don't give enough attention to their sushi rice. But Kubo does. I could eat just their rice for a meal. It has only a hint of vinegar and sugar, and a perfect sticky rice texture. Their raw salmon is good too. It broke my heart recently to learn that sushi restaurants in Japan mostly don't serve raw salmon. The Japanese figured out that raw salmon can give you tapeworm. Uggh. Maybe that is why my 7-year old, who eats so much raw salmon, has been so hungry lately. The whole tapeworm thing pretty much killed my taste for raw salmon. But not hers. She's lucky. She has no idea what a tapeworm is.
Kubo is the best HJR. You may ask, “how can you evaluate the best HJR since they all serve the same food?” There are two measures. The first measure is the quality of the fish. Many HJRs have uniformly excellent fresh fish. Many do not. I can immediately delete a number of HJRs from my best list because their fish is not the best -- Tokyohana, Todai, Japon, Miyako, Sushi King, Osaka, Kirin I and II. Most of those HJRs are ok, but their fish is not uniformly excellent, like the fish at Kubo is.
The second measure is innovation. Chefs at a handful of HJRs have been somewhat innovative. Of these, Kubo is the best. Not only do they have several unique rolls not found anywhere in Houston, but each month they have 5 new and very unusual specials. Each month, I try all 5 specials at Kubo, and at least 3 of them usually blow my mind. For instance, last night, we had a truly incredible special -- lightly fried lobster in a sweet truffle oil sauce. They also served a pate made from monkfish paired with a spicy fatty tuna ceviche. In addition to the specials, Kubo typically has at least 5 - 10 kinds of special sushi or sashimi that you just cannot get at most other HJRs -- fish like amberjack, fatty tuna, king salmon.
Kubo also has hon wasabi. This isn't the industrial green-colored horseradish sauce in a tube that you get at any other HJR. This is sweet, mellow, earthy, grainy, complex, and spicy. It is so good; I can eat it by itself. It's not for everyone. It has to be special ordered. And it costs $3 or so. But it is really unique.
Runners Up for Best Sushi in Houston.
Nara. Before Kubo, Nara was the only HJR serving any innovative food. Nara was the first HJR to serve miso cod. Miso cod (gindara miso) is food of the gods. Only a handful of Houston restaurants make it, probably because it requires black cod, which is pricey and hard to find, and 3 days of marinating. Nara does a great job with it. So do Kubo and Uptown Sushi. Nara still serves innovative food, and they have very fresh fish. WARNING -- way outside the Loop.
Uptown Sushi and the Fish. These are ultra-hip HJRs that opened recently in the ultra-hip Uptown Park and the ultra-hip Midtown. Their interior design, and the crowd, are . . . ultra-hip. Their menus have a number of standard HJR items, but they also make some fairly successful attempts at Japanese Fusion. Uptown Sushi has some very good and unusual sushi rolls, which benefit from creative sauces. Uptown Sushi also has possibly the best interior design of any restaurant in Houston. The focus is some cool fabric light fixtures made by an Israeli light designer whose work looks like various sea creatures. Eating at Uptown Sushi is kind of like eating in a fish tank. I find that kind of disturbing, but in an ultra-hip way.
Nippon. I have not been there in over 10 years, so I can't swear by Nippon. A good friend who is married to a woman from Japan says that she says it is the best and most authentic Japanese restaurant in Houston.
Azuma. Azuma is really good. They advertise hot rock beef, which is more interesting to cook yourself at the table than it is to eat. They also advertise their robata grill, which they use to cook a number of different meats and fishes, including gindara (black cod). But their best food is their sushi. They have some interesting rolls and some very fresh fish. It could become the best HJR, but right now they do not have quite the level of innovation, or the same frequency of innovative specials, that Kubo has.
Worst sushi in Houston - Tokyohana. Throngs of West U families pack in Tokyohana on weekend nights. In 2004, Tokyohana was voted on Citysearch as "Best Sushi in Houston." In my one visit -- and I will not return -- they distinguished themselves by serving the worst sushi rolls in Houston or anywhere else. The sushi roll variety plate had a variety of rolls with one common feature -- the innards of every roll were swimming in soggy cream cheese and/or mayo. Worse, the soggy mayo and cream cheese were not balanced by any competing texture, such as crunchy crab or shrimp or even firm fish. The tiny bits of limp fish seemed like an afterthought in the soggy, mayo rice rolls. I confess that my worst fear is to die drowning in a giant vat of steamy, hot mayo. Tokyohana's rolls reminded me of my fear. Maybe all those West U families come to Tokyohana for something else. I hope, for the sake of our American culture, that it is not all the mayo.