Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Soma -- first taste

Soma is the new project of Robert Gatsby (former executive chef at Noe) and Plinio Sandalio (former pastry chef at Noe and the Cookie Jar). I have read that the owners of Azuma are involved.

It opened a little over a week ago. I have only tried it once for lunch. It may take many visits for me to figure out this fascinating restaurant. But my one lunch was memorable enough to write about now.


Soma is in an art deco-styled strip center at Washington and Shepard. But the interior is something completely new. The Japanese-influenced, post-modern design has so many different elements that it is hard to describe. There are a lot of red and wood colors. But the design also involves stone, woven bar stools, exposed brick and pipe, and a number of unusual lighting fixtures. The dominant design feature, suspended above the sushi bar, is a set of four transparent glass panels depicting Japanese scenes: a tattooed sumo wrestler, a geisha, some ancient stone steps crossing a creek, and a bizarre straw-like sculpture. I'm no design expert, but I could spend hours studying this room.


A large part of Soma's menu consists of nigiri, sashimi, and rolls. I tried a few pieces of giant clam nigiri -- a fairly rare item on Houston sushi menus -- which was quite fresh. I also watched the Japanese sushi chefs prepare other items. My impression is that the nigiri and sashimi are high quality and that their higher-than-average prices reflect that quality, but the presentation is fairly basic and traditional. The rolls look unusual and creative, with ingredient combinations I have not seen elsewhere.

The Washington Avenue area needed a high quality sushi bar. It looks as though Soma will fill that niche well.

But that is not the main reason to go here.

The kitchen

My main interest in Soma is what the all-star team would create from the kitchen. My first impression is that the result is more mainstream than Noe, but creative, well-executed, and a little hard to describe.

My server recommended a bento lunch special. Apparently, I was the first person to order it. The bento will consist of five items and change daily. Today, it contained:

1-A creamy-textured parsnip puree soup, topped with fennel. A warm puree of root vegetable always comforts me in winter. The parsnip provided a delicate and subtle base, and the fennel added a little sweetness and complexity. The soup's origins were in French, not Japanese, cuisine

2-An iceberg wedge salad with a creamy, spicy (miso?) dressing. A wedge salad works only if the dressing is very good, and this flavorful, Asian dressing was outstanding.

3-A short rib sandwich, on a tiny bun, topped with a fresh caper. The short rib had a deep, smoky soy-like flavor. It was one of the most intensely flavored short ribs I have tried.

4-Two pieces of a sushi roll, involving some fish and mayonnaise. I do not like the texture of mayo in sushi rolls, so this was not my favorite.

5-An excellent small desert with short cake, topped with strawberries and oranges and creme freche. This was a chance for Sandalio's pastry chef talents to shine. The thin, dense cake was soaked through with sweet fruit juices. Its texture reminded me of Lebanese cake soaked with rose water. It was a simple, but delicious desert.

Interestingly, only two of five items seemed to show any Asian flavors. Although the short rib and the short cake were the real stars, the well-balanced combination of five small dishes was an effective way to showcase the diverse strengths of this restaurant.

So what kind of restaurant is Soma?

Soma's chefs are bursting with talent. I cannot yet determine what direction they will take this restaurant. It certainly is not another Noe, nor another Azuma. But will it be a modern American restaurant that happens to have a good sushi bar? Or will it be a contemporary Japanese restaurant that fuses Japanese with modern French and American cuisine? Or will it be something sui generis -- an idiosyncratic mix that reflects more the personality of its chefs than any one or two traditions?

After I eat a few dinners -- and a lot of bento lunch specials -- I will let you know.


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