Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Soma -- now I get it

I have never written about a restaurant twice in a row. But Soma is so intriguing, that it deserves it. My last notes were incomplete. Although Soma is still in its "soft opening" phase, and its menu is still labeled "draft," I think I get it.

Despite some flaws in its infancy -- flaws that may ultimately be fixed -- Soma is already serves some of the most interesting food in Houston, at reasonable prices. To avoid the flaws, and to experience the best of Soma, I offer six suggestions:

1 - Skip the sushi bar; order from the kitchen. The dishes served by the sushi bar are good quality, but ordinary. Sashimi is served as blocks of fish -- no artistry and none of the little extra touches that can make sashimi special. Many of the rolls are dominated by mayonnaise or creamy sauces that ruin the texture for me. I can name at least 10 sushi bars in town that serve raw fish preparations that are more authentic, more interesting, and more enjoyable.

In contrast, the kitchen is one of the most creative in town. How can one restaurant be so schizophrenic? A server explained that the sushi bar is "the same as Azuma," but "the famous chef Robert Gatsby prepares French-Japanese fusion dishes in the kitchen." I can only hope, in the future, that Gatsby gets the chance to teach a little of his magic to Azuma's sushi chefs.

2 - Skip the wine; order sake. Soma's current wine list is the kind of list that wine geeks love to hate. Was it put together at the last minute by a liquor distributor trying to push an overstock of large production California wines? It is dominated by well-known, over-oaked California chardonnays and cabernets -- wines that simply do not go with either sushi or Gatsby's delicate creations. For this menu, I would love to order a white from Alsace, Germany, or Austria. There are none. For a red, I would order a delicate pinot noir from Oregon or Burgundy. Yet the only pinots are over-extracted California fruit bombs. Soma needs a good wine guy.

In contrast, the sake menu is good. They serve my favorite brand -- Shirayuki Junmai Ginjo. I also enjoyed two other good sakes on the list. Somehow, sake just seems to work with Soma's flavors.

3 - Forget about appetizers and entrees; order tapas style. Soma's menu does not list dishes by courses. Instead, the categories are salads, soups, cold plates, and hot plates. Except the fish and chips, the portions are small, and the prices are low. So think of it as a tapas-styled menu. Order two or three dishes per person. Even better, go with a large group and share everything.

4 - Expect to be surprised. It is hard to know what you are ordering. Soma's menu descriptions are minimal and cryptic. Plus, during this soft opening phase, the wait staff cannot explain the dishes. So you don't know what to expect when you order. For instance my wife and I ordered "lobster, seafood preparation, caviar." To my delight, and my wife's horror, it was a glass with bits of seafood swimming in a spicy sea of heavy cream. Other menu descriptions gave no hint that dishes were fried. For my wife, who wants to know exactly what she has ordered, these surprises are unpleasant. But for me they are fun.

I have tried over a dozen dishes at Soma that are creative and surprising. For instance, on a Zen antipasti platter, a small bowl held an egg shell with the top 1/4 cleanly sheared off. Inside were scrambled eggs with bacon and surprisingly large bits of black truffle. "Fish and chips" consists of a sea bass, served whole and tempura fried, with fries and three different dipping sauces. Scallops with orange marmalade come with large, paper-thin fried hash brown (?) cakes that rest on top of the scallops like graduation hats. Plus, Gatsby's signature mango salad is a remakable column of crunchy noodles, finely chopped vegetables, egg, and who-knows-what-else with a spicy kick and a sweet mango sauce.

5 - If you would rather dine than party, avoid weekends. Soma was immediately discovered by the Washington Avenue party scene. On Friday and Saturday nights, everyone is under thirty. Girls wear low-cut party dresses. Boys wear jeans and untucked dress shirts. Girls order colored drinks. Boys order beer. Everyone orders sushi rolls. Girls sit together in groups. Boys wander around the restaurant, trying to meet girls. The seating arrangements at tables are fluid. It's loud. It's entertaining. But it feels more like a club than a restaurant.

At least for now, Soma is much more pleasant at lunch or weekday nights. Then, the focus is on the food, not the scene.

6 - Don't forget dessert. Don't worry about New Year's resolutions. The portions of the deserts are as small as the other dishes. And the desserts are just as fun and surprising and delicious as everything else from the kitchen. Chef Sandalio may be as much a genius as Gatsby, and his desserts are a primary reason to eat here.

Update 6.11.08

A number of commenters have said they had bad experiences with the food at Soma. My first 5 or 6 meals at Soma were all oustanding. Then it happened to me. Lunch yesterday was disappointing. Five of six dishes in the lunch bento had very little flavor and was not well executed. A very dull corn soup was served room temperature. Tilapia -- a fish with very little flavor -- was served without sauce or flavoring other than some steamed vegetables. The sushi roll was dull. The salad seemed underdressed. Only a lemon custard brulee had much flavor -- and it was nowhere nearly as good as the desserts made by pastry chef Sandalio before he left Soma.

I hope it was just one bad meal. But I am beginning to understand some of the comments from folks who had a disappointing food experience at Soma.


Anonymous said...

After reading your report on Soma, we decided to try it tonight.

Unfortunately, the experience was ultimately one of the least enjoyable that I can remember.

I really enjoy reading your blog and have pretty much agreed with your reviews of the same restaurants we have been to, but this time it's like we went to bizarro Soma. It was a completely different experience from yours.

There were 5 of us tonight, and took this as an opportunity to try a variety of dishes.

Let's start with the most disappointing part of the meal. One of us chose to get the Chef's Omakase. From my experience, when Omakase is offered in a multi-course style, the whole table must get it. At Soma there is no such stipulation, yet now I wish there were. I'll explain below.

Traditionally, omakase is the chef's selections of his creative items, often times off the menu, tailored for the foodie. It's not uncommon for the chef to visit the table to learn more about the guest and his or her general tastes. This was offered at Soma but Gatsby/chef on duty never showed. No big deal, but if the waiter says the chef will stop by, then the chef should follow through, or the waiter should have at least explained why he couldn't stopping by, even if it's to say "It's crazy in the kitchen."

The omakase itself was neither creative or inspired - quite the opposite it consisted simply of 4 courses and a dessert straight off the regular menu. Two of the courses were soups, to boot. The worst thing was the length of the intervals between the arrival of each course. I suppose if everyone at the table had ordered the omakase, it would have been more tolerable, but even if that were the case the length of time was still unacceptable. This meant that our omakase-taker was waiting for dishes 3, 4, and 5 long after the rest of us had finished our meals.

The general manager came by and asked us how the meal was, and I gave him our feedback on the omakase. He agreed with our points and said he'd let the chef know.

The food itself was really mediocre. Not bad, but not challenging, and definitely not worth coming back to. The food at Noe when Gatsby was chef there was much better.

We ordered the following dishes:

Hama Yuzu
Fish and Chips
Patriot Roll
Hamachi with Pickled Vegatables
Ginger Butternut Squash Soup

The Omakase included:

Lobster, Seafood Cup
Duck soup
Potato Dumplings and Sweet Sausage Soup
Curried Braised Beef

The Hama Yuzu was decent, Hamachi on top of asaparagus spears with a Yuzu sauce, which is citrus-based. Same goes for the Hamachi with pickled vegetables. Pretty good, but nothing mind-blowing for an "upscale" attempt. C+ for both

The aforementioned scallops were also decent, yet I felt the waffled waffle(?) on top of it distracted from the actual taste of the scallops. B-

Patriot Roll was good, solid fare. B

The Fish and Chips was presented interestingly, a big, fried, whole striped bass served with a side of straight-up french fries. The taste of the fish however was bland, and drier than expected. This made the 3 sauces that came with it all the more necessary. 2 of the sauces were standard Ponzu and Sriracha, available at your local Asian market. C'mon. You could do much better with the whole fish at Hunan on Post Oak. D+

Ginger Butternut Squash Soup - the flavor was good, but its problem was that it is too frothy throughout, not creamy enough. It had the consistency of melted Blue-Bell ice cream.C

For a truly remarkable soup, try the Pumpkin Crab Soup at Cafe La Jadette.

The Lobster and Seafood cup was OK, but a bit too heavy on the cream sauce to truly enjoy the taste of the lobster and fish. C

Duck Soup - very good, great chicken broth base. B+

Potato Dumpling Soup - tasted like ground beef that had been cooked in a sweet soy sauce. Average. C for taste, D for creativity

The Curried braised beef was edible, but no better than what you can find at your standard Thai restaurant. The beef was in chunks, slow cooked in a beef stew style, and very tender. The curry flavoring good, but taken as a whole, not special. C+

The dessert plate was just strange. It consisted of several pieces of a soft cake (pretty good), and a very potent ginger sorbet. Upon first taste I thought it was trying to bite my tongue off. The third part of the dessert plate was a sake cup full of ... your guess will be as good as mine because I had no clue. Club Soda, sake, and corn syrup? Just ask for the "mystery drink in sake cup" if you are up for it.

C- for taste, changed to B+ due to increased curiosity factor

Our waiter was very jolly and had a great attitude, but the service itself was uneven. At times he was very attentive, then he'd disappear for long stretches.

And then there's the whole bit about the time it took for each dish of the omakase to come out. This, even after we talked to the general manager after the 3rd dish.

Wait Service: C, Kitchen Service: F

Loud, pounding house music seemingly on loop. D, made worse by the food quality and service

In Houston there is clearly a place for over-hyped, trendy, mediocre Japanese food (see Uptown Sushi and the Fish) where the club, err... restaurant delivers a nice social experience but unrewarding dining one.

It's still early for Soma (they've only been open for 3 weeks), but it's not a promising start. However, the location is great, the decor is attractive, and I'm sure the place is rocking on the weekends. Taken strictly as a dining experience, there is much room of improvement.

For a city with such great food, it's sad that Houston's Japanese cuisine scene is simply not up to par with other major cities in the US. By my count, there are only 3 places in town worth making a trek to - Sasaki, Teppay, and Nippon. Several others are decent, standard places - Kubo's, Matsuzaka, Sushi Jin. Then we have the trendy places where the food really *seems* like an afterthought.

There are several places in Dallas that the hip Japanese restaurants in Houston could learn from. Tei Tei Robata is probably the best. There are many others.

anonymouseater said...

Andrew - I am very sorry you had a bad experience trying Soma after I recommended it. I appreciate your thorough and thoughtful comments.

It sounds as though you went on a weekend night. When I went on a Friday night, there were quite a few mistakes by our waiter and the kitchen. I chalk that up to usual problems with a new restaurant with a big crowd. I also do not recommend going on a weekend night unless you are looking for a club atmosphere.

As for the food, I guess I liked it more than you. A few dishes have not been great to me, but I have had more hits than misses.

Apart from the average sushi bar, I would not call Soma a Japanese restaurant, or compare it to Sasaki or Teppay. They are different animals. To me, the better comparison is Noe. My overall experience has been that the kitchen's food at Soma is as good, or almost as good, as Noe, but a lot less expensive.

Anonymous said...

It was a weeknight when we went, but fairly crowded. It wasn't too much of a club atmosphere, but I definitely see how it could be.

I do agree it's different than traditional places like Teppay. And you're right, the best comparison is to Noe or maybe Uptown Sushi.

Soma tries to use some inventive ingredient combinations and techniques I haven't seen anywhere else in a Japanese-Fusion restaurant (besides Noe), and while I definitely appreciated the attempt, the execution, coupled with the lackluster service just made the whole experience disappointing. Hopefully it improves.

I'm interested to see what your other readers have to say about Soma and I look forward to reading your updates!

Anonymous said...

My wife and I visited Soma on Feb. 2 2008 and thought the food was excellent. The atmosphere was somewhat "clubish" but there were no crowds there at the time we visited. We found all the courses to be of proper proportion and not small.

The meal consisted of:
Starters - Marinated Tuna and the Soma sushi roll. Both excellent, but we could have had a couple more of the Soma rolls.

Main meal was the Lobster Curry and a special of Lamb Shank. Also, excellent. My wife had the curry and thought it was perfect. I had the lamb and it was the best I've every had. This topped the lamb shank I had at Craft in NYC (Tom Colicchio's restaurant). It was nice and spicy.

For desert we had the Chocolate Decadence and Milk & Cookies. The M&C comes with hot chocolate which my wife added a shot of Bailey's too. Again, both were excellent.

To wash it all down we had a wonderful bottle of Brancott Sauvignon Blanc.

I will say that at the time we visited they were not officially opened, but when we past back by later on after a play we attend, it was packed.

We will be visiting again.

Anonymous said...

soma update: 02/16/08
i left soma.

Anonymous said...

My first meal (dinner) was pleasant enough if a little heavy on the sauces, but Sunday brunch was chaotic. Brunch has simply not been well orchestrated with a bizarre selection of foods from eggs, to maki, to bagels and little boxes of raisin bran! There were no glasses for juice, no plates at the counter (and I think it might be a health code violation to return to a buffet with used utensils and plates), no tea other than green tea which just doesn't go well with bacon, eggs and pork sausages.

The most of servers and bussers were very warm and friendly, but their casual approach does not support what I suppose Robert Gadsby would target: a sophisticated air.

It's not offensive, but it's certainly not Nobu. Set your expectations.

Unknown said...

I haven't tasted this food before... Maybe I'll try to order soma tonight... By the way, when is the best time to eat it?

order soma said...

I ate at Soma a couple of weeks ago and was pleasantly surprised. the food was delicious, and the service was great. I will definitely eat there again!