Raw tuna is showing up on more and more menus. It is usually an appetizer. And at the moment, raw tuna appetizers typically follow this formula:
Raw tuna + crunchy carbohydrate + creamy spicy sauce (usually with wasabi) + tomato or avocado (optional)
The formula works well because of the texture contrasts. The texture of raw tuna is slightly chewy and a bit creamy. That texture is mirrored by a creamy sauce, but contrasted with a crispy carbohydrate such as a cracker or crispy wonton or potato chip.
I have had at least four versions of this appetizer in the past month. Although they were all good, some were more successful than others. So I have ranked them.
Honorable Mention: Seasons (at Lost Pines Resort) - Tuna Tartare
I was stuck on business this week at the Lost Pines Resort in Bastrop. Although I am not a fan of the resort, it has an excellent restaurant called Seasons. Season's raw tuna appetizer had the best presentation of the four tuna appetizers, but fell slightly short in texture and flavor. The dish consists of a beautiful cylinder of raw tuna, a bowl of black pepper waffle potato chips, and different sized dots of wasabi cream. The presentation reflects the minimalism of Japanese design. The problem was that the potato chips were not strong enough to hold the tuna, so I had to crumble them on top of the tuna. Also, the wasabi cream was more cream than wasabi, which made the flavor a bit dull. Fortunately, the black pepper in the potato chips gave the dish a little kick.
Third Place: Rickshaw's Tuna Tataki
Rickshaw is a pan-Asian / sushi restaurant on Westheimer near River Oaks. Their Tuna Tataki appetizer comes with plantain chips, seared and nearly-raw tuna, shiso oil, and wasabi cream. Plantain chips have a firm crispiness that allows you to eat the tuna like chips and dip. The wasabi cream has enough horseradish to make it nicely spicy. It is delicious dish with interesting texture contrasts.
Second Place: Benjy's Seared Sashimi Tuna Pizzette
Benjy's in the Rice Village follows the tuna appetizer formula with a brilliantly creative pizza. The key is the very thin, extra crispy pizza crust, much like pizza crusts I tried in Italy. But the grain of the crust is unusual -- possibly made with cake flour. This cracker-like crust provides the crunch to contrast with pieces of raw tuna. The pizza also includes some greens and roma tomatoes and, of course, some wasabi aioli to make it spicy. But it is the contrast of cracker crust to creamy tuna that makes this dish sing.
First Place: Bluefin's TuNachos
I recently talked about this wonderful Japanese restaurant. Its off-the-menu raw tuna appetizer slightly edges out Benjy's. Bluefin makes the best wonton chips I have found. Shaped like tortilla chips, they are thick, yet crispy and delicate, yet firm enough to hold the tuna and eat like a nacho. Along with the fresh cubes of raw tuna, this dish also includes some thin slices of creamy avocado and a few sprouts for greenery. The wasabi mayonnaise served with this dish is the spiciest I have tried anywhere. Like good chips and a spicy salsa, this dish is highly addictive.
I am surprised by the wine I have found works best with these dishes. It is not a white wine, as I might expect. Instead, it is pinot noir. There is something about the spiciness and delicate texture of pinot noir that works remarkably well with raw tuna -- perhaps even better than the classic combination of pinot noir and salmon. Another good pairing is a good-quality sake.
Although the raw tuna appetizer is trendy, it is popular with good reason. Tuna plus crispy carbs makes for an interesting, fun combination.