Sunday, December 18, 2005

Japanese food in Houston

"I am honored and proud that so many people are making food like mine. American people are accepting Japanese food. That is good."
-Nobu Matsuhisa

Japanese Fusion. Something really exciting is happening with Japanese food in America. Chefs are melding Japanese ingredients and techniques with Western cuisine. It is all fueled by Iron Chef (the best tv show ever because it presented chefs as gladiator heroes). The results of the new Japanese fusion have been amazing, at Japanese restaurants like Nobu and Megu in New York, Shibuya in Las Vegas, Mori in Los Angeles, Morimoto in Philadelphia, and Sea Saw in Scottsdale.

The only problem -- it isn't happening in Houston. The sushi scene here is better than it was, say, 20 years ago. But it is still pretty standard. Most Houston Japanese Restaurants ("HJRs") still have the oh-so-helpful table placard with photos of 20 different kinds of sushi. It always made me suspicious that the photos are not printed by the restaurant, but by some Japanese beer company. Why should Japanese beer companies dictate every sushi restaurant's menu? Most HJRs also have a selection of the same 10 or so sushi rolls, a list of the same handful of entrees -- teriyaki chicken, teriyaki salmon, katsu don, miso cod (stolen from Chef Nobu, but damn good) -- some noodle bowls, a selection of 2 - 3 sakes, and . . . that's about it.

But I love Japanese food. So does my 7-year old daughter. So we still go to HJRs.

Best sushi in Houston -- Kubo. Last night, my 7-year old begged to go to Kubo. No, they don't have robotic dancing furry animals. They do, however, do a great job with her two favorite foods -- sushi rice and raw salmon. Most HJRs don't give enough attention to their sushi rice. But Kubo does. I could eat just their rice for a meal. It has only a hint of vinegar and sugar, and a perfect sticky rice texture. Their raw salmon is good too. It broke my heart recently to learn that sushi restaurants in Japan mostly don't serve raw salmon. The Japanese figured out that raw salmon can give you tapeworm. Uggh. Maybe that is why my 7-year old, who eats so much raw salmon, has been so hungry lately. The whole tapeworm thing pretty much killed my taste for raw salmon. But not hers. She's lucky. She has no idea what a tapeworm is.

Kubo is the best HJR. You may ask, “how can you evaluate the best HJR since they all serve the same food?” There are two measures. The first measure is the quality of the fish. Many HJRs have uniformly excellent fresh fish. Many do not. I can immediately delete a number of HJRs from my best list because their fish is not the best -- Tokyohana, Todai, Japon, Miyako, Sushi King, Osaka, Kirin I and II. Most of those HJRs are ok, but their fish is not uniformly excellent, like the fish at Kubo is.

The second measure is innovation. Chefs at a handful of HJRs have been somewhat innovative. Of these, Kubo is the best. Not only do they have several unique rolls not found anywhere in Houston, but each month they have 5 new and very unusual specials. Each month, I try all 5 specials at Kubo, and at least 3 of them usually blow my mind. For instance, last night, we had a truly incredible special -- lightly fried lobster in a sweet truffle oil sauce. They also served a pate made from monkfish paired with a spicy fatty tuna ceviche. In addition to the specials, Kubo typically has at least 5 - 10 kinds of special sushi or sashimi that you just cannot get at most other HJRs -- fish like amberjack, fatty tuna, king salmon.

Kubo also has hon wasabi. This isn't the industrial green-colored horseradish sauce in a tube that you get at any other HJR. This is sweet, mellow, earthy, grainy, complex, and spicy. It is so good; I can eat it by itself. It's not for everyone. It has to be special ordered. And it costs $3 or so. But it is really unique.

Runners Up for Best Sushi in Houston.

Nara. Before Kubo, Nara was the only HJR serving any innovative food. Nara was the first HJR to serve miso cod. Miso cod (gindara miso) is food of the gods. Only a handful of Houston restaurants make it, probably because it requires black cod, which is pricey and hard to find, and 3 days of marinating. Nara does a great job with it. So do Kubo and Uptown Sushi. Nara still serves innovative food, and they have very fresh fish. WARNING -- way outside the Loop.

Uptown Sushi and the Fish. These are ultra-hip HJRs that opened recently in the ultra-hip Uptown Park and the ultra-hip Midtown. Their interior design, and the crowd, are . . . ultra-hip. Their menus have a number of standard HJR items, but they also make some fairly successful attempts at Japanese Fusion. Uptown Sushi has some very good and unusual sushi rolls, which benefit from creative sauces. Uptown Sushi also has possibly the best interior design of any restaurant in Houston. The focus is some cool fabric light fixtures made by an Israeli light designer whose work looks like various sea creatures. Eating at Uptown Sushi is kind of like eating in a fish tank. I find that kind of disturbing, but in an ultra-hip way.

. I have not been there in over 10 years, so I can't swear by Nippon. A good friend who is married to a woman from Japan says that she says it is the best and most authentic Japanese restaurant in Houston.

Azuma. Azuma is really good. They advertise hot rock beef, which is more interesting to cook yourself at the table than it is to eat. They also advertise their robata grill, which they use to cook a number of different meats and fishes, including gindara (black cod). But their best food is their sushi. They have some interesting rolls and some very fresh fish. It could become the best HJR, but right now they do not have quite the level of innovation, or the same frequency of innovative specials, that Kubo has.

Worst sushi in Houston - Tokyohana. Throngs of West U families pack in Tokyohana on weekend nights. In 2004, Tokyohana was voted on Citysearch as "Best Sushi in Houston." In my one visit -- and I will not return -- they distinguished themselves by serving the worst sushi rolls in Houston or anywhere else. The sushi roll variety plate had a variety of rolls with one common feature -- the innards of every roll were swimming in soggy cream cheese and/or mayo. Worse, the soggy mayo and cream cheese were not balanced by any competing texture, such as crunchy crab or shrimp or even firm fish. The tiny bits of limp fish seemed like an afterthought in the soggy, mayo rice rolls. I confess that my worst fear is to die drowning in a giant vat of steamy, hot mayo. Tokyohana's rolls reminded me of my fear. Maybe all those West U families come to Tokyohana for something else. I hope, for the sake of our American culture, that it is not all the mayo.


bui nguyen said...

nara, uptown and the fish are all affiliated with one another...some of the owners/partners are brothers. nara was the original.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree Kubo's is the best sushi in Houston. Japanese who visit Houston actually go here. It has excellent quality and very reasonable prices.

I'd also like to agree that Tokyohana is the worst Sushi in Houston. I think people continue to go there because it's generalist Americanized menu appeals to the average white person. But you won't find a real Japanese person eating or working there, or anyone who knows what good sushi really is. I went there one time on a date, but they didn't even serve Miso soup so I dismissed it as a "fake Japanese restaurant".

Then I actually ended up working there... the best thing for everyone is if this place goes out of business. It’s the Denny’s of Japanese restaurants, only less well-managed. I was a server there for a few months, and it was the worst job I have ever had in my life. Please remember the servers are just trying to make a living, and the poor service is due to the bad management. The servers are treated horribly, the dishwashers and cooks are treated far better.

Also keep in mind this place has never had an actual Japanese employee, it is owned by Malaysians and the entirety of the rest of the staff is Mexican, except for some servers. The food is middle-low quality, sometimes the sushi is decent, and it is comparatively cheap when on special.

If you want really good sushi in a real Japanese restaurant that is nearly as cheap, go to Kubo’s. However, I know for a fact Tokyohana was serving rotten hibachi meat for awhile because I tasted it, which happens because they prepare it in large batches which are stored for a week or more before use.

Many people come here for birthdays, but be warned you will be charged for the birthday package deal (ice cream, photo, song and dance), and you won’t get it unless you ask for it. They also have live entertainment and Magicians on certain nights, which leads many people to compare it to Chuck E. Cheese's, which it sometimes is like when there are a lot of kids there. Often the orders for big parties are delayed or messed up because the servers have to fight over the few computers to enter orders with, which causes delay.

Because the servers are treated so badly there is a very high turnover which results in the poor service. They are constantly understaffed because Tokyohana will hire anyone who applies, no experience needed, because they are so desperate for people. They train you in a week or less, and half of the training is useless stuff like how many ounces of meat is in each portion. The servers are required to tip out the hibachi chefs, which is fine, but any tips the chefs receive is not shared with the servers. The servers are also required to tip out the kitchen staff, which is illegal. Usually when the server messes up an order they are required to pay the full retail value of the item, instead of the management absorbing the cost. Most nights I couldn’t make more than $50, and I was sometimes there for 10 hours or more. The servers are typically constantly harassed by unsympathetic managers, and are not allowed to take any breaks or sit down. I myself delivered some bad service simply because I was overworked and I had too many customers to take care of. I always tried my best but it was impossible to keep up, in addition to being demotivated by an oppressive management. It also gets too hot in the summer, because they are too cheap to properly maintain the air conditioning. We started calling it “Tokyosauna”. I felt really bad for the customers who would come into the 90 degree restaurant and try to eat; the smart ones left immediately.

Anonymous said...

I almost have same opinion as yours with most of the restaurant. FYI, Sushi King has changed their rice quality, I'm sure. I recently visited twice, and their rice was really really good. I even asked them if they have changed their chef, or at least the rice.

Free Credit Score said...

Do you prefer authentic Japanese food or the "in" Japanese fusion? I love Japanese fusion and I consider myself "cross-over" :p