"Hey, you have a Buddha! Oh, I love Buddhas. They're like bright, cheery, naked Asian Santas."
-Oscar Novak, Three to Tango
My wife and I took a weekend trip to New York for food. We tried everything from a Michelin 3-star restaurant to street vendor food. Our meals make for some interesting comparisons with similar food in Houston.
Part 1 - Kubo vs. Megu.
Kubo is my favorite Houston Japanese restaurant. But how does it compare with one of the top Japanese restaurants in New York?
Megu is the first U.S. restaurant opened by Hiro Nishida, a high-end Japanese restauranteur. He reportedly auditioned chefs Iron-chef style for 25 spots. I anticipated my meal there for weeks.
Megu is one of the most striking dining rooms I have seen. In the middle of the room is a giant Buddhist temple bell that hangs over a 5-foot tall ice sculpture Buddha. The ice Buddha melts during the evening. They place a lit candle in front of him -- either to illuminate him or to make him melt.
We arrived too late for a tasting menu, so we tried a few appetizers and a plate of assorted, chef's choice sushi. The sushi was excellent. Like Houston's best sushi restaurants such as Kubo and Nara, the sushi was perfectly sculpted in an arc around the rice, the fish tasted fresh, and the rice had perfect texture. The wasabi was freshly grated from Japanese horseradish root at the table. It had a much more earthy and complex, but less spicy, flavor than the ordinary green stuff. Although everything about the sushi was outstanding, Sushi is by nature conservative. Traditional sushi gives a chef more of an opportunity to demonstrate competence than to demonstrate improvisation.
If we wanted to taste cutting edge Japanese food, we probably should have ordered something more creative. But the focus in the rest of the menu seemed to be less on creativity and more on high-priced items like $150 fillet mignon and $60 grilled cubes of Kobe beef.
We did get two interesting appetizers. The miso cod (listed on the menu as "silver cod grilled with Yuan miso") tasted similar to the same dish at Kubo -- the fish probably was marinated for several days in miso, which gives it a rich, sweet flavor. The primary difference was that Megu's miso cod added some exotic, long-necked mushrooms and a bit of lemon, which added some acidity. It also had been grilled in a wrapper of hosho paper, rather than baked uncovered. As a result, the dish at Megu was very moist, but lacked the crunchy, slightly carmelized crust you get on some of the edges of the baked fish at Kubo. Either at Kubo or Megu, miso cod may be my favorite dish.
Another appetizer was Hamachi Carpaccio -- a simple preparation of thin strips of yellow tail, with small, exotic peppers, and "spicy Kanzuri sauce." The yellow tail was remarkably rich and fatty. I have no idea what was in the sauce, but it had an outstanding, citrusy flavor.
Megu did not have the same sort of "fusion" sushi rolls that I love at Kubo. Sure, these are cliched American-Japanese food, but they are a lot of fun, and they give chefs the chance to experiment with ingredient combinations and sauces. Instead, Megu had very traditional rolls. The one that came with our sushi consisted only of rice, fish, and rice paper. I was a bit surprised that Megu seems to avoid this sort of American cross-cultural combination.
The wine list at Megu beats the pants off of any Japanese restaurant wine list in Houston. There were pages and pages of wines that pair well with raw fish -- reislings, gewurtztraminers, Gruner Veltliners. We ordered an Alsatian reisling that was floral, nicely acidic, and surprisingly dry. It was perfect to pair with sushi. At Kubo, the best wines you can get are mass-produced Chardonnays from California or a Pinot Grigios from Italy. Those wines do not pair so well with sushi.
The other big difference was the price. The meal at Megu, not including wine, cost us just under $200. At Kubo, a much larger meal with more variety usually costs no more than $60.
Kubo rates very well against Megu, especially at less than 1/3 the price. But our visit to Megu does suggest two ways Kubo could improve. First, get a real wine list. Second, offer a set tasting menu to show off the chefs' most creative dishes. And one more thing -- maybe you can raise your prices if you hire a sculptor each night to make a bright and cheery ice Buddha.