By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Minh T Truong
By Molly Dunn
By Brooke Viggiano
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Molly Dunn
By Molly Dunn
By Eating Our Words
At Masa Sushi near the Johnson Space Center, I considered six slices of yellowtail that had been lightly seared and topped with a little bit of fresh jalapeño. The sashimi sat in a pool of yuzu citrus juice and soy sauce on a strikingly modern white plate. It all looked very familiar.
I folded a slice in half with my chopsticks so as not to lose any of the chile peppers, then popped it in my mouth. First I tasted the salty soy and the sour yuzu (an Asian citrus fruit), and then the buttery hamachi, which began to dissolve with little encouragement from my molars. The jalapeño added crunch and pepper flavor, but surprisingly, I didn't detect any heat.
Masa's Texas jalapeño yellowtail is a spectacular "new style" sashimi presentation. I could eat about ten orders of the stuff. When we put the empty plate aside, Michael Zhou, the head sushi chef and owner, asked us how we liked it.
977 NASA Parkway
Houston, TX 77058
Region: Clear Lake
Texas jalapeņo yellowtail: $11.95
Crazy sashimi: $9.95
Skydiver roll: $10.25
Bento box chicken dinner: $15.95
Surf clam sushi: $1.50
"Better than Nobu's," I told him. He blinked at me for a second in disbelief.
"You have been to Nobu?" he asked incredulously.
"Yeah, the one in Dallas," I said.
"There's one in Dallas? I have to go," he said. And then he whispered, "I learned this dish from Nobu." As it dawned on him that he seemed to be claiming to be Nobu's apprentice, he corrected himself. Actually, he'd copied the dish from one of Nobu's cookbooks, he told us.
This is no surprise. After all, Nobu Matsuhisa is one of the most influential and imitated sushi chefs in the world. He popularized the whole concept of new-style sashimi, in which slices of raw fish are flash-cooked and served with sauce and condiments. And jalapeño yellowtail is probably the most famous of the lot.
I love new-style sashimi, and I'm glad to see it on Houston sushi bar menus. And I wasn't kidding when I said I liked Chef Michael's version better. Nobu gets $18 for yellowtail with jalapeños. Mike charges only $11.95.
Sure, Chef Michael is borrowing other people's ideas -- what do you expect from a Clear Lake restaurant called Masa Sushi? I've never been to the famous Masa Sushi in New York, which is considered by many to be the best sushi restaurant in the country. But I know that master sushi chef Masa Takayama charges a straight fee of $300 per person for the chef's omakase lunch or dinner, and that a reservation for the 26-seat restaurant must be made weeks, if not months, in advance.
You can pop into Masa Sushi on NASA Parkway without a reservation seven days a week, although the restaurant was crowded on the Friday night of our first visit. There was a half-hour wait for a table, but there were places available at the sushi bar. So three of us sat at the three stools closest to the sushi chef.
"Those are the best seats in the house," a woman eating from a bento box a few stools away told us. "You can see everything he's doing."
One of my dining companions quizzed her about her bento box dinner. The ornate lacquered box, which is divided into compartments, often serves as both a plate and a carrying case for Japanese lunches. But at Masa Sushi, the shiny box is also used for combination dinners.
Lunch boxes come with a salad, steamed rice and your choice of entrée. The dinner combination comes with a salad, steamed rice and tempura shrimp on a skewer. With this you can get your choice of four entrées: chicken teriyaki, chicken katsu, pork katsu, or sushi and sashimi selections. (Katsu, or East-West sauce, may sound exotic, but don't be too impressed; it's made with ketchup, mustard and Worcestershire sauce.)
But there isn't much point in sitting at a sushi bar and ordering tempura, so we tried to stick with sushi. Chef Michael prepared an order of giant clam sashimi by slicing tiny fingers along the edge of a thin slice. To serve it, he threw the piece of clam violently against the serving plate. When he did, the little fingers curled up and waved at us.
"It's alive!" one of my companions gasped.
"No, it's just the nerves," Michael said, leaned over to reassure her. "But it is very fresh." The clam sashimi was sweet and chewy, with a wonderful flavor. My dining companions had become addicted to the citrus-soy sauce served with the jalapeño yellowtail. They dipped their clam in the leftover sauce at the bottom of the dish.
We were all fond of the skydiver roll, which featured a crispy-cooked soft-shell crab rolled up with avocado, onion and cucumber and topped with strips of marinated and broiled freshwater eel. The Cajun roll, with fried oysters and avocado topped with a crawfish cream sauce that resembled étouffée, wasn't very Japanese, but it did taste good.
Most of the other sushi-roll creations on the menu sounded pedestrian. There were quite a few with vegetables, baked fish and smoked fish. And for those who don't trust even smoked fish, the cream-cheesy Philadelphia roll here is made with baked smoked salmon.