There’s an energy in the current Houston culinary scene akin to the energy in the Silicon Valley during the early days of internet. It’s as if we’re just on the cusp of discovering a whole new world, and the driving force behind it is this crop of young, bold, local chefs, eschewing the restaurant institution and going underground with one-time-only supper clubs and private tasting dinners.
They’re changing the landscape of the Houston restaurant scene, one new dish at a time, and this past Sunday at Kata Robata (Kata), we had a best-in-class example of what it’s like when you remove limitations and let the chefs do whatever they want.
For the third installment of Kata’s UMAMI dinner series, team Kata’s Executive Chef Manabu Horiuchi, aka “Hori-san,” and Chef de Cuisine Mark Gabriel Medina, combined forces with Restaurant conāt’s Chef Randy Rucker and Pastry Chef Chris Leung to create a 9 course tasting dinner that would illustrate umami, the Japanese word for savory. Sushi chefs Son Ong and Charli Vuu, and Kata’s resident mixologist, David Long Wong, who created the drink pairings, were also integral parts of the team.
The dinner started off strong, with a tangy, prettily plated amuse-bouche of melt-in-your mouth rolled Texas kobe beef sashimi, pickled lotus roots, Vietnamese mint, yuzu dressing and squid chips by sushi chefs Son Ong and Charlie Vuu. The flavors were on point, with just the right amount of tart, sweet, and savory, while the tender beef got a bit of pick-me-up crunch from the pickled lotus roots and squid chips. Paired with a sweetly floral St. Germain cocktail with canton ginger liquor, dimmi, and lemon bitters, it set the tone for the brilliance of the ensuing meal.
For the first course, “Tora-fugu” or poisonous tiger blowfish, had been flown in from Shimoneseki, Japan just the night before. Prepared sashimi-style by Hori-san and laid out in thin, almost translucent bites in a fan-like pattern on a long plate, it was served with the traditional osuimono clear soup. The fish itself was light in flavor, subtle, yet elegant. Its texture reminded me a bit of engawa, or sashimi of halibut fin, with a slight chew like an abalone, and a crisp like a squid or octopus. The warm, clear broth was also very light, with a bit of bitterness coming off the lemon rind to help wash down the flavor of the fish.
The fact that we were able to try fugu in Houston was a feat unto itself. The poisonous fish is notorious in Japanese cuisine, its preparation so specialized, and the threat of death by neurotoxin is so serious that there are currently only 16 licensed restaurants in the entire US, Kata becoming the 16th when it was awarded membership to the Torafugu Buyer’s Association just this month. It’s a testament to Hori-san’s experience in the sushi world that Kata joined this elite group of restaurants specializing in fugu. It’s also thanks to him that the lucky few in attendance that night were able to try the fish with no threat to their lives.
Next up was Rucker’s pickled lizard fish. “Hori put the pressure on! he goes fugu and I pull out lizard fish from shrimp “trash,” he tweeted before the dinner. I knew this meant something good, but hearing “pickled” I was a bit leery of how it would turn out, since I find that I’m not a fan of overly sour food. I had nothing to worry about. Served with a pie-crust-like black crumble of charred tiny onions with persimmon vinegar and anise, this course was one of the standouts of the night, the pickled lizard fish delicately flavored while still being savory, the totality of the dish a brilliant illustration of Umami.
To follow, Hori-san and Medina served a very traditional dish of braised daikon and pork belly with vegetable ankake sauce and lobster powder. “The daikon!” my dining companion exclaimed dramatically as she took a bite and almost swooned in food bliss. The strong traditional Japanese flavors were beautiful, the braised daikon, having absorbed these luscious flavors during the braising, acting as the dish’s centerpiece.
Rucker’s creation of a riceless risotto of root vegetables and almond mullet roe would come next, executed to perfection so that the root vegetables mimicked kernels of rice, the mixture creamy, slightly sweet, warm, and yes, delicious. The almond and mullet roe added a contrasting salty-savory component to keep things interesting, the tasting again earning exclamations of surprised delight from my dining companions.
The fifth course, Medina’s black squid ink pasta, with quail onsen tamago, octopus, wasabina and shitake, was perhaps the heartiest of the portions served. The Italian-Japanese fusion here worked, the quail egg yolk giving a creamy coat to the buttery pasta, while the octopus, wasabina and shitake very Japanese-like in flavor.
A lovely intermezzo of winter melon granita would follow, a lightly sweet and cold palate cleanser which would be followed by what is always a highlight for me: Kyoto style temari sushi. For this course, the sushi had been shaped into bon-bon sized round orbs, so that all you to do was plop each piece in your mouth and revel in the flavors.
Of the three selections, I loved the Texas kobe beef with tomato powder for the decadent fatty tenderness, but the Japanese snapper topped with yuzu kosho, fresh uni, and tobiko was also outstanding, as was the richly red tuna topped with a sliver of fresh truffle. Paired with Nanbu Bijin “Southern Beauty” sake, I enjoyed this traditional Japanese offering even as I relished in the creativity of some of the previous courses.
The final savory course was beautiful in its presentation, with a shaved daikon radish cleverly shaped into an “S” shape. Made of red broiler chicken cooked over spruce limbs, and daikon and bouillon of white tea and seaweed, I found this to be the least exciting dish purely because the flavor profile and textures were so subtle. I nonetheless cleaned my plate and waited expectantly for the final two courses, desserts by Pastry Chef Leung.
He didn’t disappoint. I enjoy desserts that make you want to scrape the plate, and both courses he served had me doing exactly that. Lightly sweet, almond cake mint cream roulade, with pomelo cells, pomelo pith compressed with maple, and pomelo zest vinaigrette, was garnished with black sesame cream and powder, and topped with maple rum sorbet. It sounds complicated, but the flavors were delicate and fine, the almond cake moist and fluffy, the sorbet divine. I was full at this point but it was so good that when I finished my plate I wanted another.
The second dessert was no less elegant and equally beautiful in its conception and execution. A complex blend of yuzu granita, panna cotta, matcha tea meringue, coffee, air-spun milk chocolate ice cream, and caramel and cumin noodles gave tasters texture and flavors that were sweet, cold, creamy, crispy all in one dish.
Where other tasting dinners can sometimes fall short of expectation, I can say without hesitation that this dinner was exceptional. Creative. Memorable. Eye-opening. Death-defying even.
The chefs will be collaborating once again for another UMAMI tasting dinner on December 18th. The multi-course meal with drink pairings is set for $225, and will feature premium ingredients and liquor. Make your reservations now, as I guarantee it will be worth every penny.
For more infomation:
Kata Robata, 3600 Kirby Drive Houston, TX 77098. (713) 526-8858. Follow them on Facebook.
Restaurant conāt. 5219 Caroline Street. Opening Spring 2012. Follow them on Facebook.
About the author:
Mai Pham covers Restaurants and Fine Dining for lodeplus.com. Click on the subscribe link above to stay up to date with news and events about food in Houston. You can read previous stories here. Pham is also featured on Fox 26 news every other Friday evening at 9pm, where she dishes about food and restaurants in the Houston scene.