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Bright red and streaked with fat, the large slab of raw meat glistens invitingly. It looks like a quarter-inch-thick slice of raw filet mignon. But it's toro, the fatty underbelly meat of the bluefin tuna.
I bite off as much as I can chew. It tastes kind of like steak, too, until you start chewing it. Then, instead of the tough fiber of beef, you find a fish as soft as butter. In fact, the Japanese word toro means "melt."
Toro is one of those items you always see pictured on the handy tabletop tent cards, but which few sushi restaurants actually have. It's expensive, and the average American diner doesn't have much interest in high-fat sushi. I gave up asking for it a long time ago. So it's a pleasant surprise to find it at Osaka, the new Japanese restaurant on Westheimer at Stanford.
Houston, TX 77006
Bottle of draft sake: $10.50
Toro (varies with market price): $8
Sweet shrimp: $8
Daily lunch special: $9.95
Teriyaki beef lunch: $15.95
The truth is, I didn't ask for toro at Osaka, either. When we first sat down at the sushi counter, I asked for unagi. But Thomas Wakasugi, Osaka's head sushi chef, said no. "Don't start with unagi, have it later." Having worked as a sushi chef in Houston for 14 years (most recently at Ginza, 5868 San Felipe), Japanese-born Thomas Wakasugi has some firm ideas about sushi.
A chef who is both personable enough to banter with you and knowledgeable enough to serve as a guide to the complexities of classical Japanese-style sushi is a rare find in Houston. Chef Kubo (short for Hajime Kubokawa) at Kubo's (2414 University Boulevard) was my favorite until he left town. Some of my friends like chef Hori (short for Manubu Horiuchi), the new head chef at Kubo's, even better. I'm also fond of chef Toda (short for Tatsumi Toda) at Sasaki (8979 Westheimer). But chef Wakasugi seems like a contender, so I put my dining experience in his hands.
First, he sends us a gratis salad of seaweed with assorted chunks of fish mixed in. And, in return, I offer him a glass of sake. We have ordered a bottle of Hakutsuru draft sake, which is brought out in an ice bucket and served in tiny decorative cups. Draft sake is always served cold. In fact, it's put into cold storage immediately after it's made. Hakutsuru is one of Japan's most popular brands. Brewed with mountain spring water from Mount Rokko in the famous sake town of Nada, it has a light, clean taste with a faint but pleasant aroma that I find reminiscent of peach blossoms. My date takes a sniff and decides it smells more like peach schnapps. I tell her this is because she had too many fuzzy navels in college.
"So what kind of sushi goes best with draft sake?" I ask Wakasugi. "All kinds," he shrugs and smiles.
"Okay, then hit me with your best shot," I tell him.
No doubt Wakasugi sees me as a man who can appreciate fatty fish. The carpaccio-like toro is his first recommendation, and it's followed by some of the richest yellowtail I've ever eaten. Not only is the sushi fresh, and cut from the fatty part of the fish, but the slices are extremely generous. Next, we refresh our palates with a salad-like intermezzo of lean sea bass sushi with a tart ginger-scallion relish on top. Then we try some "sweet shrimp."
Sweet shrimp comes from Canada, Wakasugi tells me. It's a very large shrimp with unusually rich-tasting flesh. The split and cleaned shrimp sits atop a rice roll and is garnished with orange salmon eggs. And it comes with a follow-up: After you eat the raw shrimp, the sweet shrimp heads are dipped in tempura batter, fried and served on top of another rice roll. My date gamely bites one but shoves the other one over to me. "I can't deal with the eyeballs," she says. That leaves me three crunchy heads to savor. I shove them in my mouth -- forelegs, antennae, eyeballs and all. They're especially tasty with the sake. If you've ever sucked a crawfish head, there isn't anything terribly weird about eating these.
In fact, I enjoy them so much that Wakasugi recommends I follow the sweet shrimp with something similar: tempura-fried soft-shell crawfish sushi. Paul Prudhomme first brought soft-shell crawfish to the public's attention ten years ago or so. While I have often enjoyed them in Cajun restaurants, I've never seen them at a sushi bar before. At Osaka, they come tempura-fried, then anchored to a log of rice. Although they're a little large for a sushi roll, they're quite delicious dunked in the wasabi and soy sauce dip I've made.
By this time the unagi, which is generally one of my favorite sushi treats, seems like a somewhat pedestrian choice. But I get some anyway. The grilled eel is liberally coated with a sweetened soy glaze. This sweetness is why chef Wakasugi suggested we save it for last. The flavor is wonderful, but the truth is that I'm so full, I really don't even appreciate it.
My date jokes about our dessert. "I imagine little children all over the world being told that they aren't going to get any eel unless they clean their plates."
The decor at Osaka is rather innocuous. A graceful curve of dark wood along the ceiling frames the sushi bar like a theater proscenium. There are a few large Japanese calligraphy characters on the walls and flowers here and there, but nothing very dramatic. The windows on the shopping center parking lot provide a lot of light, and most of the tables are placed alongside them.
We sat at one of the window tables on a recent afternoon. The lunch specials at Osaka aren't really much of a bargain. There's a $9.95 sushi assortment that isn't all that exciting and a $9.95 bento box with tempura shrimp, salted salmon and vegetables. My date tried the tempura special, and I got a beef teriyaki lunch that appears on the regular menu.
Both came with that subtly seasoned snore called miso soup and an equally flavor-free iceberg salad. The tempura assortment included three big shrimp, sweet potato, squash and onion, all of which were quite competently fried. A couple of bland cucumber sushi rolls and a lonely dumpling rounded out the meal. The salted grilled salmon with katsu sauce was good, if you like salty food, but all in all, the bento box was disappointing. My teriyaki beef was nicely marinated and grilled, then chopped into strips and served over a salad. It came with the same assortment of tempura vegetables. It tasted fine, but I couldn't help thinking that for the same $15.95, I could have taken four people out for a far tastier Chinese lunch at Peking Cuisine (see "Forbidden City Food," November 7).
Of course, the sushi at Osaka isn't cheap, either. But I suspect the letdown I felt on the lunch visit was from the fact that I was comparing iced tea and a tempura medley to premium draft sake and a performance by a virtuoso sushi chef. It's hardly a fair comparison.
If you visit Osaka, go with enough time to enjoy the full-length feature. Chef Thomas Wakasugi is a Japanese classicist with a unique twist. Though he was born in Japan, all his sushi experience has been acquired in Houston. And his soft-shell crawfish, sweet shrimp and raw beef-like toro creations suggest that he has developed a knack for fitting Japanese sushi to the Texan palate. He certainly has my tastes nailed.