By Brooke Viggiano
By Minh T Truong
By Molly Dunn
By Joanna O'Leary
By Francisco Montes
By Molly Dunn
By Molly Dunn
By Katharine Shilcutt
I order some of the warm rice wine. It's Ozeki sake, made in California. If sushi is the new pizza, then I guess sake is the new microbrew. American consumption of sake quadrupled from 1990 to 1998, with more consumers paying a premium for the good stuff. American sake producers like Ozeki are gaining respect, and the Australians are getting into the act as well.
I feel a little foolish drinking the house rice wine after looking over the selections at Kubo's extensive sake bar. If you are a sake connoisseur, you will no doubt be impressed with Kubo's list. Along with California and Australian rice wines, there are 12 Japanese sakes, most of which range from $7 to $18 for a large bottle. A 24-ounce bottle of Kubota Hejijyu, the very best Daiginjyo sake on the list, sells for $90.
2414 University Blvd.
Houston, TX 77005
Region: Kirby-West U
Why so expensive? Daiginjyo sake is generally made of rare Yamada-Nishiki rice, grown in the high mountains, where a special flavor is imparted by the microclimate's extreme variations in daytime and nighttime temperatures. The rice is then milled to half or less of its original size. This combination of mountain rice and extreme milling evidently creates an incredibly smooth flavor.
I learned this at a Web site called eSake.com, which I wish I had visited before going to Kubo's sake bar. But it's not too late for you. The site is hosted by sake authority John Gauntner. If you want to learn about sake, just print out his glossary of styles and take it with you to Kubo's. Assuming, of course, that you can find Kubo's.
On my second visit, the mezzanine is a ghost ship. It is bitter cold, and the tables and chairs have been put away. The plants are wrapped in white cloth in anticipation of a freeze. One bush looks like the Venus de Milo; another is reminiscent of Rodin's Balzac in white. Kubo's is even emptier than the last time.
Knowing now that the restaurant is one of the last redoubts of real Japanese sushi in Houston, we order from the à la carte menu and skip the mayonnaise and hot sauce rolls. To start, we get yellowtail, toro (fatty tuna) and giant clam sashimi, tobiko (flying fish roe) topped with quail egg, salmon roe topped with quail egg and uni (sea urchin) sushi. I also order a bowl of chicken udon soup to fight off an impending cold. With my nose out of commission, I decide to skip the premium sake.
The chicken broth is dark and rich thanks to dried shiitake mushrooms. There are also some asparagus lengths and tiny green beans among the chicken chunks and rubbery slices of fish ball. The thick, ropy udon noodles are wonderfully chewy. I am so engrossed in my bowl that I barely notice the arrival of the sushi. But once the soup is finished, I feel positively restored.
The sashimi is arranged artfully, but not quite as dramatically as before. As it turns out, chef Kubo is off tonight. I miss his artistic mastery, mainly because it provides a pleasant way out of the usual sushi reviewer's dilemma. There are, after all, only so many ways to say "fresh." Let's just say the sashimi at Kubo's tasted really good.
The uni was another story. It didn't taste at all like I expected. I have eaten fresh sea urchin directly from the shell at a stall in the Mercado Central in Santiago, Chile. I remember the flavor and texture as sort of an iodine sherbet. But the uni at Kubo's had very little of that iodine taste and none of the firm texture. I think this is because it has been frozen. That's not a criticism. As George Alexander has explained in these pages, you want the seafood used in sushi to be frozen. In fact, it's imperative to killing harmful bacteria and parasites (see "Side Order of Worms," March 29, 2001). But freezing certainly changes the flavor of uni, turning the firm texture and mineral taste into an inconsequential sort of sea foam that melts innocently in your mouth.
We ask our waiter a few questions about the restaurant, and it turns out that he's actually the owner, Yoichi Ueno. "So why is the restaurant named Kubo's?" I ask.
"Because Kubo is the best sushi chef in Houston," the owner declares. Apparently the restaurant was founded as a showcase for Kubo's talents.
"Ask any sushi chef in town. Kubo is the best. He has been in Houston for 17 years and he taught everybody else. The sushi chefs at Miyako and Japon all look up to him," Ueno says.
Chef Kubo is the real deal all right -- he's a major-league, big-time, da' kineJapanese sushi chef. But is he the best in town? The owner thinks so, but that figures. G. Michael Freeman is pretty impressed with him too. But short of sampling all the raw fish in Houston, how do you decide these things? I take the owner's advice. I call the Miyako location out on Hillcroft and ask for the sushi chef. David Kim picks up the phone.
"How long have you been a sushi chef?" I ask him.
"Have you ever heard of Kubo?" I want to know.
"Yeah, sure, he worked out here for a while."
"And what's his reputation?"
"In my opinion, he's the best sushi man in town," Kim says. So I guess that settles it.