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Chef Kubo is the best sushi man in town -- ask anyone

Chef Kubo's knife is flying. I've ordered chirashi, which the menu describes as eight kinds of sashimi over sushi rice. I have heard that Kubo (short for Hajime Kubokawa) is the best sushi chef in Houston, and I figured this free-form dish would give him a long solo. So I sit at the sushi bar and watch him perform. At last, he sets three lacquered bowls in front of me. The compositions inside look like little Zen sculptures.

The first is a landscape with a snow-white mountain of sticky sushi rice. A silver dollar-size patch of pink denbu, a sweet fish powder, tints the snow near a crinkled shrub of earthy wood-ear mushroom. Strips of an oniony Japanese winter root vegetable lie like fallen logs. A bridge of hot, grilled freshwater eel stretches over the scene.

The second bowl is a waterfall of shimmering sashimi slices. Ivory yellowtail, orange salmon, white mackerel, red tuna and shiny-skinned albacore are accented by bright yellow lemon slices and jagged green mizuni leaf. In the last bowl, two sweet omelet pyramids hold up a fan of chewy white and purple octopus slices. The fish is fabulous, but it's the presentation that blows me away.

Chef Kubo wields his knife with the skill of a samurai.
Deron Neblett
Chef Kubo wields his knife with the skill of a samurai.

Location Info

Map

Kubo's Sushi Bar & Grill

2414 University Blvd.
Houston, TX 77005

Category: Restaurant > Japanese

Region: Kirby-West U

Details

713-528-7878. Hours: Tuesday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 11 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 9:30 p.m.
2414 University Boulevard (second floor)

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My dining companion orders a sushi roll combo plate. Chef Kubo is Japanese; he doesn't do the rolls. That task falls to a Mexican chef named Alex, who hails from Puebla. While Kubo's work station is devoid of anything but knives and towels, Alex's station is surrounded by rolling mats, plastic wraps and squeeze bottles full of sauces. We taste the sashimi and then the rolls -- what a contrast.

The sushi combo platter is a wacky, multicultural experience. It includes one spicy tuna roll, one Houston roll and one Kubo's roll. The Kubo's roll is crunchy fried shrimp wrapped in nori and rice with lots of mayonnaise. The spicy tuna rolls are heavy on the sirachi sauce. The Houston roll is made with avocado. I recognize the style immediately: This kind of sushi is wildly popular in Mexico City right now.

"Sushi à la mexicana?" I ask Alex. He smiles broadly and nods in the affirmative.

I've often thought about how sushi evolves to reflect the popular taste wherever it goes. But I have never tasted such divergent interpretations side by side. They are as unlikely together as a Japanese gentleman in formal wear and a Texas teenager in a Britney Spears outfit. The only thing they have in common is the raw fish.

January is a big month for raw fish, thanks to New Year's resolutions. This is the time when we atone for our Christmas cookies by joining the gym and eating less red meat. Sushi is one of the brightest stars in this dark night of deprivation -- the rare culinary treat that fits into the low-fat, low-cholesterol, low-guilt regime. That's part of the reason that sushi is one of the hottest food trends in America.

The National Sushi Society reports that from 1988 to 1998, the number of sushi bars in the United States quintupled to 5,000. In 1999, 40 percent more Americans ate sushi than in 1994. Food trends guru Phil Lembert predicts, "Sushi may well be the new pizza."

Now there's something to think about. Does that mean we'll be able to call Sushi Hut to get a raw fish fix delivered during Monday-night football? One thing's for sure: If sushi is the new pizza, then quality is going to do a nosedive. And if you've seen what already passes for sushi at supermarkets and chain restaurants, you know what I mean. Fake crabmeat is not my idea of sushi.

There is nothing wrong with California rolls and dynamite rolls and all the rest of that multicultural genre, as long as they're made with the best ingredients. But traditional Japanese sushi is a completely different experience. The aesthetic of Kubo's chirashi is absolutely shocking. It reminds you of what you've been missing in all the modern interpretations.

I heard about Kubo's Japanese Restaurantfrom a regular reader named G. Michael Freeman. Freeman sent me an e-mail that said: "I want to let you know about a great new sushi bar in West University. The sushi chef is Japanese and he is a hard-ass. He insists upon quality, freshness and size. They need help because of their funky location. Nobody knows about the place."

Kubo's is on the second floor of that giant concrete parking structure in the Rice Village across Morningside from The Ginger Man. Park your car in the concrete cavern and then look for a little sign on the ground floor that indicates the way to the stairwell. It all looks pretty dismal, until you emerge upstairs in a snazzy mezzanine decorated with planters and outdoor seating. The area is shared by Two Rows, Bayou City Crawfish Café and Kubo's. On our first visit, this second-story plaza was loud with music and crowded with well-dressed singles drinking beer and margaritas. I was tempted to hang out awhile before dinner, but my date shoved me through Kubo's front door.

Inside, the rock and roll of the mezzanine is replaced by cool jazz. The restaurant is decorated in an elegant, modern Japanese style with lots of wood paneling, a curvy gray-green ceiling and geometric carpet. Over the booths hang artsy Murano glass lamps in a ketchup-red and mustard-yellow squiggle pattern. The crowd is about half Japanese, but the restaurant isn't very busy. Most are sitting at a long bar that showcases big bottles of sake.

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