I have never written about a restaurant twice in a row. But Soma is so intriguing, that it deserves it. My last notes were incomplete. Although Soma is still in its "soft opening" phase, and its menu is still labeled "draft," I think I get it.
Despite some flaws in its infancy -- flaws that may ultimately be fixed -- Soma is already serves some of the most interesting food in Houston, at reasonable prices. To avoid the flaws, and to experience the best of Soma, I offer six suggestions:
1 - Skip the sushi bar; order from the kitchen. The dishes served by the sushi bar are good quality, but ordinary. Sashimi is served as blocks of fish -- no artistry and none of the little extra touches that can make sashimi special. Many of the rolls are dominated by mayonnaise or creamy sauces that ruin the texture for me. I can name at least 10 sushi bars in town that serve raw fish preparations that are more authentic, more interesting, and more enjoyable.
In contrast, the kitchen is one of the most creative in town. How can one restaurant be so schizophrenic? A server explained that the sushi bar is "the same as Azuma," but "the famous chef Robert Gatsby prepares French-Japanese fusion dishes in the kitchen." I can only hope, in the future, that Gatsby gets the chance to teach a little of his magic to Azuma's sushi chefs.
2 - Skip the wine; order sake. Soma's current wine list is the kind of list that wine geeks love to hate. Was it put together at the last minute by a liquor distributor trying to push an overstock of large production California wines? It is dominated by well-known, over-oaked California chardonnays and cabernets -- wines that simply do not go with either sushi or Gatsby's delicate creations. For this menu, I would love to order a white from Alsace, Germany, or Austria. There are none. For a red, I would order a delicate pinot noir from Oregon or Burgundy. Yet the only pinots are over-extracted California fruit bombs. Soma needs a good wine guy.
In contrast, the sake menu is good. They serve my favorite brand -- Shirayuki Junmai Ginjo. I also enjoyed two other good sakes on the list. Somehow, sake just seems to work with Soma's flavors.
3 - Forget about appetizers and entrees; order tapas style. Soma's menu does not list dishes by courses. Instead, the categories are salads, soups, cold plates, and hot plates. Except the fish and chips, the portions are small, and the prices are low. So think of it as a tapas-styled menu. Order two or three dishes per person. Even better, go with a large group and share everything.
4 - Expect to be surprised. It is hard to know what you are ordering. Soma's menu descriptions are minimal and cryptic. Plus, during this soft opening phase, the wait staff cannot explain the dishes. So you don't know what to expect when you order. For instance my wife and I ordered "lobster, seafood preparation, caviar." To my delight, and my wife's horror, it was a glass with bits of seafood swimming in a spicy sea of heavy cream. Other menu descriptions gave no hint that dishes were fried. For my wife, who wants to know exactly what she has ordered, these surprises are unpleasant. But for me they are fun.
I have tried over a dozen dishes at Soma that are creative and surprising. For instance, on a Zen antipasti platter, a small bowl held an egg shell with the top 1/4 cleanly sheared off. Inside were scrambled eggs with bacon and surprisingly large bits of black truffle. "Fish and chips" consists of a sea bass, served whole and tempura fried, with fries and three different dipping sauces. Scallops with orange marmalade come with large, paper-thin fried hash brown (?) cakes that rest on top of the scallops like graduation hats. Plus, Gatsby's signature mango salad is a remakable column of crunchy noodles, finely chopped vegetables, egg, and who-knows-what-else with a spicy kick and a sweet mango sauce.
5 - If you would rather dine than party, avoid weekends. Soma was immediately discovered by the Washington Avenue party scene. On Friday and Saturday nights, everyone is under thirty. Girls wear low-cut party dresses. Boys wear jeans and untucked dress shirts. Girls order colored drinks. Boys order beer. Everyone orders sushi rolls. Girls sit together in groups. Boys wander around the restaurant, trying to meet girls. The seating arrangements at tables are fluid. It's loud. It's entertaining. But it feels more like a club than a restaurant.
At least for now, Soma is much more pleasant at lunch or weekday nights. Then, the focus is on the food, not the scene.
6 - Don't forget dessert. Don't worry about New Year's resolutions. The portions of the deserts are as small as the other dishes. And the desserts are just as fun and surprising and delicious as everything else from the kitchen. Chef Sandalio may be as much a genius as Gatsby, and his desserts are a primary reason to eat here.
A number of commenters have said they had bad experiences with the food at Soma. My first 5 or 6 meals at Soma were all oustanding. Then it happened to me. Lunch yesterday was disappointing. Five of six dishes in the lunch bento had very little flavor and was not well executed. A very dull corn soup was served room temperature. Tilapia -- a fish with very little flavor -- was served without sauce or flavoring other than some steamed vegetables. The sushi roll was dull. The salad seemed underdressed. Only a lemon custard brulee had much flavor -- and it was nowhere nearly as good as the desserts made by pastry chef Sandalio before he left Soma.
I hope it was just one bad meal. But I am beginning to understand some of the comments from folks who had a disappointing food experience at Soma.