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The little black tablecloths and the giant red lipstick columns make my heart beat faster every time I walk into Blowfish. The high dividers between the booths are covered in an electric crimson fabric with silver spirals and zigzags, and the banquettes are upholstered in a print that looks like a Paul Klee painting of red bamboo. The hallways are lined with sleek black slate, and there's an aquarium full of bright African cichlids built into the wall behind the sushi bar.
The name, too, promises something daringly luxurious: Blowfish, or fugu in Japanese, is the most dangerous and the most expensive kind of sushi. Sliced improperly, this delicacy can kill you. They may not serve any fugu here, but the place is plenty exciting. A stunning Asian bartendress in a black shirt and red tie is taking me through a sake menu that includes some rare, expensive bottles. But she loses me when a woman whose dress doesn't have a back walks by with her jaw-droppingly gorgeous friend. "Mercy," I mumble middle-agedly.
I order a premium sake called Shirayuki ginjo with dinner. Like all the best sakes, it's served cold. According to sake-world.com authority John Gauntner, ginjo rice wine starts with grains that have been polished to 60 percent of their original size, compared to 70 percent for cheaper grades. The extra milling removes fats and proteins that might throw off the flavor, he says. Ginjo is also fermented at a colder temperature for a longer time, which results in a delicate but complex flavor. I don't know the language of rice wine criticism, but if I had to describe its fruity, floral aroma, I'd say it reminds me of peach blossoms. The flavor is quite crisp, with a higher acid content than your average sake, which makes it a great match for food.
309 Gray St.
Houston, TX 77002-8597
Region: Downtown/ Midtown
Shirayuki ginjo sake: $15
Avocado Miso Something Soup: $8
Smoked Salmon Volcano: $10
Cookie-crusted prawns: $16
Pollo tempura: $11
Nama sake: $8
Godzilla roll: $10
Fajita roll: $8
Lickitty Split: $13
Lunch sushi special: $12.95
For appetizers, my dining companion and I try the playfully named Avocado Miso Something Soup and Smoked Salmon Volcano. The soup is a rich, flavorful green puree with shrimp and cilantro; crunchy caviar pops up now and then like tapioca in a pudding. The Salmon Volcano is a cooked creation with "lava" that I think is chile mayonnaise. Unfortunately the fish gives up a little too much oil, which makes the whole thing taste greasy.
Our "New Vogue Entrees," as the menu describes them, are Jumbo Prawns Crusted in Eggroll Cookies, a weird but delicious bunch of big shrimp fried with a coating of fortune-cookie crumbs, and something called Pollo Tempura con Mint Pico de Japon, which sounds like the wackiest Asian-Latin dish since Américas' Pato Chino-Latino. In fact, the Pollo is pretty boring tempura chicken breast with some mint-flavored kiwi salsa on the side. The menu also includes some conventional-sounding dishes like shrimp and vegetable stir-fry, marinated sea bass and a fillet with garlic-wasabi sauce. An item called Hamburger Steak and Eggs with Plum Sauce makes me wish this place were open for breakfast.
On my first visit, I went with the nama sake and the sushi. Nama has several meanings in Japanese, Gauntner explains, like "raw," "live" and "natural"; in terms of sake, it means unpasteurized. "Nothing could be more pleasantly refreshing in spring than a glass of namazake," he writes. "It somehow conveys the essence of spring, the newness and youth of all of nature." I don't know about the newness of all nature, but the draft sake does have a really nice almond aroma and a mellow flavor.
We tried some straight-up sushi along with a few of the more outlandish rolls. Chewy, ebb tide-flavored red tip clam was my favorite of the simple stuff. The yellowtail and tobiko seemed a little skimpy in portion size, and the nori wrapper that was supposed to contain the flying fish eggs had come undone so the orange caviar was leaking all over the place -- pretty unimpressive.
The rolls, on the other hand, were pure science fiction. The Godzilla roll is filled with salmon, onions and jalapeños, and it comes with the rice on the outside. The white "scales" are covered with a generous coating of green Tabasco sauce so that they resemble the Japanese monster's skin. The menu warns you to eat this one last -- it's horror-show hot. Almost every roll on the menu features an untraditional ingredient: chile peppers, avocado, cream cheese, peppercorns, even caviar crème.
Purists who grumble that these outrageous raw fish creations have nothing to do with "real" Japanese sushi are showing their age. The New York Times reports that American-style sushi rolls are the rage in Tokyo this season. A Japanese woman named Yoko Shibata, who worked in a rowdy Chicago sushi bar while she went to college, now owns Rainbow Roll Sushi, an American-style sushi bar in Tokyo. She serves American-style sushi rolls and even sushi sandwiches, and the Japanese kids love it.
The culinary genius behind the menu at Blowfish is a veteran Korean-American sushi chef named Don Chang. One of his Texas sushi creations is a fajita roll, a soy-paper tortilla wrapped around rice and grilled rib eye with onions and jalapeño mayonnaise in the middle. But the best in show is the Lickitty Split, a roll of spicy tuna wrapped in more tuna, salmon, yellowtail and avocado with two grilled soft-shell crawfish sticking out of each end. Three of us fought over the crunchy crawfish.
Impressed by Chang's playful menu and cutting-edge food, I decided to sit at the sushi bar on my third visit to Blowfish. This turns out to be a mistake.
A friend of Chang's told me the chef does a remarkable specialty called anago "Old World-style" on Wednesdays. The eel, he says, is marinated in sake and then a second time in lemon and pepper to bring out the gaminess before grilling. This is Wednesday, but the waiter has never heard of the Old World anago. He says a Phoenix roll with smelt is the only off-menu item, and I can get it on the $13 lunchtime sushi special. The roll is very tasty, smelt being those funky-tasting minnows that the Italians love to eat fried, but Chang's sushi bar-side manner leaves a lot to be desired.
The chef is running a sushi boot camp today with absolutely no regard for the customers seated right in front of him. "Order up!" he shouts at ear-splitting volume every couple of minutes. And that's not all he's shouting. Chang berates the waiters for not picking up their orders and his fellow sushi chef for being too slow. When things calm down, Chang launches into a lengthy criticism of his co-worker's performance for all to hear. The dressing-down is nearly as embarrassing to me and the six other people at the bar as it is to the hapless sushi man.
Then one of Chang's buddies shows up and sits down beside me. Chang tells the guy he should order the same $13 lunchtime sushi special I just ate, but for his friend, Chang loudly promises a much better selection than the general public is being served. Chang goes on to tell his friend what a bunch of yahoos all the other Houston sushi chefs are and how superior his Japanese training was. Evidently his sushi master never got around to teaching him any manners.
Chang is a major culinary talent who behaves with an arrogance common to great chefs. It's just that the boorishness usually takes place on the other side of the swinging doors. I've heard of some wild sushi chefs who make a show of yelling and screaming, but I don't think that's what Chang is up to. He comes across more like an artiste who can't be bothered with ordinary customers. Word has it that Chang is serving as a consultant at Blowfish, and that he intends to move on as soon as the staff at the one-month-old restaurant has been adequately trained.
This eye-popping Midtown sushi salon is already one of the hottest scenes in the city, the place to make a bold fashion statement and do a little late-night grazing on food that's innovative and fun and doesn't take itself too seriously. But as contradictory as it might sound, the restaurant will get a lot better when the brilliant chef that created the remarkable menu gets the hell out of there.