Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Soma revisited

I was wrong

I thought I knew Soma's storyline:

•Owners of upscale sushi chain (Azuma) start restaurant and hire star chef (Robert Gadsby) to run kitchen.
•Star chef's dishes are fantastic. Sushi bar is mediocre. Star chef leaves.
•Restaurant goes downhill.

The problem is that last part. I assumed Soma's food had gone downhill . I was wrong.

This weekend, I learned that Soma's sushi bar has improved. Sure, most dishes are not traditional sushi. And the fish is not in the same category as Teppay or Sushi Jin. But Soma's sushi fusion creations place it at the top of Houston's ever-growing heap of Americanized sushi restaurants.

firecracker tako

Our best 3 dishes were monthly specials. The first was called firecracker tako - diced octopus in a spicy sweet sauce on a bed of cucumbers and masago.

The octopus was spicier than I expected. It had a firm, but tender texture, which isn't always easy to get with octopus. The cucumbers made a refreshing foil for spicy seafood.

kaiseki roll

The second dish had little to do with the word kaiseki. Kaiseki is a Japanese multi-course dinner, much like a French tasting menu. Instead, this was an over-the-top Americanized set of 3 maki rolls:

1 - Spicy tuna wrapped in salmon and topped with chopped scallop and peppers.
2 - Tuna and shrimp tempura topped with tuna and king crab.
3 - Shrimp tempura wrappedn in avocado with crispy unagi (pictured below).

One of my biggest complaints about American "sushi" is overly complicated rolls that mix too many flavors and overpower fish with frying, pepper, and sugar. Yet somehow,these complex sweet and spicy rolls actually worked. For instance, a sweetened unagi balanced nicely with fresh avocado and a crispy tempura shrimp.

seared escolar

Fortunately, Soma also does simplicity. A seared escolar was served with a slightly sweet garlic sauce. The contrast of fatty fish with browned garlic was delightful.

I feared that the soma shrimp roll might fail from the weight of fried tempura shrimp, sweet eel sauce, and spicy yuzu wasabi. Yet the tempura was delicate and the eel and wasabi sauces modst enough to taste the shrimp.

I haven't tried cooked dishes from Soma's kitchen, now under the leadership of Gadsby's former protege, Philippe Gaston. We tried ordering a few kitchen dishes, but were told they had run out of the ingredients.

Soma still has that annoying meat-market atmosphere. And the Memorial-Day service was poor. The waiter repeatedly apologized throughout the meal for being short staffed.

Yet the food from the sushi bar was remarkably good -- much better than I expected.


Carlie Fairchild said...

Call me a purist but Soma's sushi doesn't really taste like... well, sushi. It's all just a little too over produced. I get the French meets Sushi restaurant vibe they're going for and more power to them as it must be working, the place is always packed (probably more to do with it being a meathead hang out like you suggest). But it's not for me.

I've been to Soma twice, no desire to go back. Our waiter there last time mentioned to me that I might like their sister restaurant better, also obviously owned by the Azuma folks, called Kaka. It's on Kirby where HUE Vietnamese restaurant was for the blink of an eye. Anyhow, might be worth a try.

P.S. Our waiter at Soma was great. So I guess I'll at least give them one point for that.

Food Princess said...

Food looks delicious but you mention service. One of the reasons I eat out is to be waited on and relax, poor service detracts from my dinning experience. Soma apparently continues to fail in this area.

anonymouseater said...

Carlie - A true sushi purist does not have many places to go in Houston. Perhaps Teppay, Nippon, and maybe Sasaki. (You can also get purist sushi from the Japanese sushi chefs at Sushi Jin and Kubo, but the menu also has fusion items). Every other place is fusion to one degree or another. Apart from the places I named, almost every sushi bar in town has Korean, Chinese, or Mexican chefs who make dishes aimed at an American palate.

Sometimes, I'm a purist. My very best experiences have been omakase at Teppay and Sushi Jin.

But I am also able to appreciate sushi fusion for what it is, on its own terms. It doesn't taste like sushi. And some of it is bad. But some is good.

Food Princess - You should spend more time at Tony's and Cafe Annie. They have great service.

soma said...

Thanks for revisiting Soma. I have taken great pains to increase the quality of the sushi bar, kitchen, service, and wine and sake list since Gadsby left. I feel my staff is doing very good things in regards to food and service. I am so happy that you gave Soma another look. We really have gotten much better, since the big change. Food Princess- I promise on the whole my servers and service are far above average. It is not an ongoing issue (and the reviews online reflect that). I will investigate what happend on memorial day (anonymouseater's experience on memorial day) and make the necessary changes to prevent from happening again. To C. Fairchild- I assume you were referring to the rolls when you said Soma's sushi doesnt taste like sushi. Because we have a huge nigiri and sashimi list. Tuna nigiri is, and tastes like, tuna nigiri, so I'm a little confused about your comment. If you choose to return, please ask for me, Ryan, and I will guarantee you wil have sushi that tastes like "sushi"! As far as the trendy factor and "meatmarket" aspect, not much I can do about that. We just set out to give Houston a beautiful, sexy, modern looking space that could have come from NYC, SF, Miami or any other well established restaurant mecca. Alot of people in Houston seem to hate that the space looks so trendy, but as long as the food and service are good, why is that such an issue? It should be a strengh, not a fault, to have such a nice looking space. I know when I travel to other cities, a restauurant looking like Soma is appreciated as part of the allure of that city. I wish more Houstonians would open their minds up and realize its ok to be hip and trendy as long as the product can deliver. I feel we do that very consistantly now. Thanks for the space to share my thoughts.

Ryan Snyder
GM Soma Sushi

dukkykim7 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
muebles en vallecas said...

So, I don't actually suppose it will have effect.