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.
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.
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.
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.