Thursday, September 20, 2007

Bluefin (and Uptown Sushi)

(Update July 17, 2008: Blue Fin has closed)

Bluefin is a Japanese fusion restaurant on Westheimer in far west Houston. It is owned by the same family as Nara, one of Houston's first great Japanese restaurants, and it has brought the brilliant Sushi Chef Shoi from Nara. It is a sister restaurant to Uptown Sushi, with similar decor and the same fixed menu designed by Chef Don Chang.

I cannot recommend Bluefin enough, even if you have to drive across town. Here is why:

Bluefin is Uptown Sushi -- without the crowds

Bluefin serves Uptown Sushi's dishes without the wait and the obnoxious crowd. As much as I like Uptown Sushi's food, I rarely go because their crowd is loud and often fairly drunk. Often, it is less a restaurant than a meat market for 20 somethings. To make matters worse, Uptown does not take reservations, and I have had to wait over 90 minutes for a table. The service at Uptown Sushi is a little surly and slow -- probably more the result of the the noise and the drunken crowds than management.

Bluefin is so far west that it is not crowded, at least not yet. Unlike Uptown, the atmospher is quiet and sedate. On a recent Friday and Saturday night, the restaurant was less than half full.

Amazing Design

Bluefin may be the most beautiful restaurant in Houston. The style is similar to Uptown Sushi, but Bluefin intoxicates you with elegance, spaciousness and some brilliant artistic details: a sushi bar framed as a stage by receding tiles and dramatic lighting; a color-changing UFO-like circle in the ceiling mirrored by a curved walkway around the seating area and circular bead designs on the ceiling; a spectatular small-tiled bar with glass shelves and striking lighting; white gauzy curtains; extraordinarily careful detailing in the wood work and subtle lighting; elegant chandeliers with an intricate glass body.


Bluefin and Uptown both excel with their appetizers on the menu. These are my favorite:

Gindara filet (miso cod). This is black cod marinated in miso and mirin, then baked. It is a rich-tasting, dish with flavors of the sea and carmelized sugar. I have had this dishes at many restaurants, but none better than here.

Seiho scallop saute. The flavors in this dish are Chinese -- scallops sauteed with soy butter, garlic, and jalapeno. The flavors push and pull like yin and yang. It is about balance.

Salmon squares. This is finely minced salmon, chives, onions, ponzu sauce, and parmesan cheese. I have never had anything that tastes quite like this salty, sea-flavored dish.

But Bluefin's best appetizer is off the menu:

TuNachos. Delicately fried wonton chips are served with a bowl of that looks like salsa, but is actually diced tuna. On the side is a rich, addictive wasabi sauce. The combination of flavors and textures is decadant - even if the appearance is a playful borrowing from Tex-Mex.


The other part of Bluefin's menu that stands out is their creative fusion rolls. Yes, most Japanese restaurants in Houston play around with traditional Japanese preparations by mixing raw or baked fish with fried seafood, Japanese and American ingredients, and sweet or spicy sauces. Too often these are unsuccessful; the texture is too mushy or flavors don't combine well. Bluefin makes better rolls because it remembers to keep textures and flavors in balance, and because it thinks outside the box. These are just two examples:

Don Roll #2. Sushi rice is rolled around crab and avocado, and whitefish is placed on the outside. The roll is covered and baked with masago caviar and ponzu sauce.

Electric Eeel Roll (off the menu): Cooked eel, avocado, jalapenos -- an extreme combination of sweet, fatty, and spicy flavors.

I do not know which of the rolls are attributable to Chef Chang or Sushi Chef Shoi. I suspect that the menu rolls may be mostly Chang's, but that Shoi has his own creations. It is fun to ask for rolls that are off the menu -- there are dozens. It is also fun to sit at the sushi counter and ask Shoi or his fellow sushi chefs to create a meal for you. I have read comments that Shoi is the best sushi chef in Houston, and I do not dispute that claim.

Wine and Service

Bluefin has a very good wine list with selections consciously chosen to match the food. The sake list is extensive. And there is a creative list of martini-like concoctions, which I have not tried.

Service at every level is outstanding. The front desk is friendly. The waiters are informed and helpful. Water glasses are kept full. Everyone is pleasant.

I have long said that Kubo is the best Japanese restaurant in Houston. That opinion may change. Bluefin combines the best elements of Uptown Sushi and Nara, resulting in one heck of a Japanese fusion restuarant.

UPDATE (Dec. 28, 2007) Even better than Bluefin's appetizers and rolls is its sashimi. Sushi Chef Shoi is a master. All of the sashimi orders come on a single plate with a dramatic and artistic presentation. We usually tell the waiter to ask the chef to give us 6 or 7 orders of sashimi that he recommends. One of the most interesting sashimi dishes is traditional sea eel, Tokyo style. It is much a large, delicately sweet piece of eel that is much better than the usual unagi with a caramelized sweet sauce than you get in American sushi restaurants.


Jennifer said...

I eat here all the time. My favorite roll is an off the menu item, called the Uka roll. It's the Nara chef's specialty. My waiter once recommended it, and I love it. I forgot what exactly is in it, but I know there is shrimp tempura, which is NOT something I usually like, tuna,and some spicy sauce.

Anonymous said...

I've been trying to drag my husband there for months! Maybe if I show him your glowing review, he'll change his mind and get out of his stupid Cafe Japon rut. ;)


Anonymous said...

WOW! I used to frequent Uptown Sushi, but I agree with the poster about the "scene". Last night I tried Blue Fin for the first time and was equally impressed with the decor of the restaurant and the menu! i also tried the Uka roll which our server Thuy recommended and it was AMAZING. I will never have to travel all the way to the galleria for great, and I mean GREAT sushi!!! Also try the Italian roll, and the Old School Eel, you will love them both!!!