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Bang-up Bento Boxes

Don Chang pushes the envelopeat Nara Japanese

I was interested to read recently that American food pundits have pronounced rutabagas and bento boxes as the coming culinary fads. Rutabagas? Yawn. If 1999 is going to be the year of the rutabaga, I want out of the food biz now. But bento boxes -- the sexy, sleek lunch boxes of Japan, born in railway stations as artful frames for humble fast food -- pique my curiosity. They're already the rage on the West Coast, I'm told. Imagine how much more appetizing it must be to dine from a glossy, black lacquered box, cunningly compartmentalized, than to grub around in a greasy paper bag of burgers. Even better, you don't have to hide the evidence afterwards.

Combing Houston for bento boxes, I reluctantly bypassed the Container Store and headed out Westheimer to Nara Japanese restaurant, where executive chef and owner Donald Chang offers 14 different "Plate Bento" lunches six days a week. If there's a trend developing, depend on the adventurous Chang to be riding its crest. "Last year, I called them 'bento plates' because we originally served on Continental place settings," he says. "I wondered if customers would be put off by eating out of boxes. But this year we switched over to the boxes, and everybody seems to like them."

You can design your own bento box combination for anywhere from $6 to $10: Choose an appetizer-sized serving of meat or fish for the first compartment, then pick a rice (fried or steamed) and a vegetable (steamed or tempura) for the next two cubbyholes. Nara fills in the remaining blank with oshinko, a mix of pickled vegetables.

So far, my favorite bento building blocks are the Nara beef roll ($8) and the sauteed scallops ($8), both of which double as appetizers on the dinner menu. Chang's take on the traditional beef roll wraps one thin slice of tender, rare-cooked sirloin around a wedge of cool, buttery avocado, and another around a steaming cylinder of sweet orange yam, instead of the usual carrot or green onions. The prettily halved rolls are topped with a sweet teriyaki glaze. The tender sauteed scallops are standouts: I love the subtle, nutty flavor of the perfectly cooked scallops, in soy butter with garlic and thin circlets of jalapeno so mild I had to double-check their identity.

In either case, I prefer the steamed white rice for my second compartment, which is not to say that the fried rice, a very lightly seasoned mix tossed with bits of very fresh green onions and carrots, isn't good. For the third box, I always opt for the very lightly battered tempura vegetables. The thin fried wheels of carrot and zucchini are cleverly fitted into their niche standing on end, so that they don't steam the crunch out of each other's fried coating; still, an ephemeral pleasure, they're best eaten quickly while piping hot.

For an additional $2, bigger appetites can tack on a lunch-sized salad to the bento plate, or a small serving of miso soup to sip between bites. The generous bowls of udon noodle soup, ranging from $5 to $8, should not be confused with the daintier add-on soups but are an entire lunch unto themselves. Burly wheat noodles, more like extruded dumplings than pasta, float in a lovely, salty miso broth with lots of thinly sliced beef, chicken, shrimp or vegetables.

The interior of Nara itself reminds me of a bento box because it is intricately fitted out like a Japanese temple with jutting tile eaves and the requisite paper lanterns. Through a pair of stone obelisks is the compartment holding the Western-style dining room with perhaps a dozen tables, graced with an oddly Disneyesque mural of grazing deer doubled by a mirrored wall. This box opens into the sushi bar alcove, with comfortable but close seating for another dozen diners. A short corridor leads from the pocket-sized bar compartment back to the Japanese-style private dining room, complete with sliding shoji panels and tatami matting.

The whole seems deceptively bigger than the sum of its parts and certainly larger than it appears from the parking lot of its barn-red shopping strip. But Nara can get quite crowded on weekend nights. Fortunately the restaurant takes reservations for both the dining rooms and the sushi bar, thoughtfulness I greatly appreciate. The staff seems young and almost as hip as Chang himself, which translates to enthusiastic but slightly uneven service. They'll scramble to accommodate the most outlandish request, such as painstakingly duplicating an itemized receipt on the restaurant's fax machine, but they also occasionally allow water and iced tea glasses to bottom out.

The real sushi action is at the bar, of course, where Nara's chefs assemble the usual suspects -- tuna, salmon, yellowtail, shrimp -- into topnotch sushi, sashimi, rolls and hand rolls with friendly, attentive competence. Larger parties can order the same from the more spacious dining room, although this often requires the waiter to shuttle back and forth negotiating the difference between what's wanted and what's on hand. A recent visit found outages of mussels, marinated silver cod, sea eel and even the cream cheese that's included, appropriately, in the Philadelphia roll. We managed to swallow our disappointment along with a half order of impeccable yellowtail sashimi ($8), a six-piece California roll ($5) and a suitably dramatic spider roll ($7), spiky with soft-shell crab claws. We especially enjoyed the sparkly red flying fish roe sushi wrapped in a dark green nori sash ($4) -- "Ooh, it's like eating itty-bitty bubble wrap!" exclaimed a friend -- and "Don's Cajun Crawfish Sushi," Chang's own playful invention sporting deep-fried soft-shell crawfish sprinkled with Cajun-seasoned sauces.

"I thought up that crawfish sushi when I was still cooking for Miyako," explains Chang. "But they felt it took too long to put together. Here at my own place, we can take all the time we need." Chang has taken some ribbing for his adventurous Tex-Cajun riffs on the traditional Japanese theme, such as his shrimp tempura soft taco with miso guacamole. "I made that one up after overhearing a snide comment," says Chang. "This person said, 'Next thing you know, he'll have tacos on the menu.' So now I do."

Given the excellence of Nara's seafood, either raw or cooked, it seems strange to hear Chang admit he's a carnivore at heart. But that preference might explain the presence of his Shichimi T-bone steak ($16), blackened with Japanese chili peppers and glazed with sweet eel sauce. It sounded interesting, so I took a gamble on it, supposing it would be fetchingly rolled, or cunningly slivered, or somehow packaged and tied with a bow. But there it was, big and plain as a boot sole, dwarfing all the other entrees at our table. It was sullen and slightly gristly and I was embarrassed to be seen with it. Oh well, you can't win them all; at least the eel sauce is far tastier than Worcestershire.

Another notable Nara innovation is its extensive sake list, which includes both warm and cold selections listed by brewer and type, and even boasts "jizake" or microbrewery-type entries. Cognoscenti who would never dream of ordering generic beer or wine can call for sake by name at Nara, a Hakusan Mild "draft sake" ($6/250 ml) from the Napa Valley or a polished Shirayuki "White Snow of Fuji" Ginjo ($18/300 ml), for example. Count me as a convert: The high-tech chilled sakes have a lot more aroma and flavor than the traditional warmed sakes, and those little 250-milliliter bottles allow plenty of room for experimentation. Next month, I hope to continue my research as Chang plans to add another 15 selections to his cellar.

At Nara, Chang is boldly going where few have gone before. When he opened the restaurant more than two years ago, no one else had attempted"Japanese fusion gourmet," as he calls it. "It's risky, sure," he says, "but it distinguishes us from the 30-odd other Japanese restaurants in town."

And that it does. Traditionalists may scoff, but the crowds keep coming back for more.

Nara Japanese, 11124 Westheimer, (713)266-2255.

Treebeard's, Market Square location, 315 Travis, (713)752-2601.

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