Buttery Beef on the Rock

The American-raised Kobe beef, cooked on a heated rock at the table, is truly outrageous.
Troy Fields

Each slice of ultra-fatty Kobe beef is about the size of two squares of a big Hershey's chocolate bar. At Azuma, the new Japanese-style restaurant on Kirby, the steak slices come to the table raw with several pats of butter and a heated rock to cook them on.

Now, granted, buttering up your hot rock and nursing your steak slices along is one of those multisensory restaurant experiences that's bound to have you drooling by the time the meat is medium rare. Any decent steak cooked like this is going to taste pretty good. But the American-raised Kobe beef served at Azuma is truly outrageous. To say it melts in your mouth is a gross understatement -- a Hershey bar is dry and tough by comparison. (For more on the beef, see "American Kobe," October 4, 2001.)

Along with the steak on the rock, my date and I try an assortment of robata delicacies. According to the menu, robata means "by the fireside" in Japanese and refers to the romantic tradition of cooking over an open fire in a Japanese country home. A piece of black cod cooked robata-style is sensational. It's as buttery as the beef and wonderfully seasoned with salty soy. Something is lost in the translation for the vegetables, however. The skewers of mushrooms and the corn-on-the-cob chunks we get are barely seasoned, barely cooked and lukewarm. The asparagus is also cold, and so is the thick peanut butter sauce it's slathered in. The waiter apologizes for the chef. They must have taken the vegetables off the fire too soon, he says.

You can watch your food being cooked on the open-fire robata grill at Azuma. It's just behind the ultramodern sushi bar, which is brightly illuminated with kooky gooseneck spotlights. The sushi bar dominates the dining room, which is impressively decorated with raw wood beams and Asian rattan furniture. I'm generally not interested in light fixtures, but you can't ignore them at Azuma. The large chandeliers and ceiling fixtures look like one-of-a-kind sculptures of handmade paper.

Azuma was founded by David Cheng, who owns a restaurant furniture company in Houston. Cheng comes from Taiwan and once owned several Japanese restaurants there. Azuma is managed by his sons, Hubert and Yun. Oddly, while most of the employees at this Japanese restaurant are Asian, none of them is Japanese. "There's two Vietnamese waiters, including me," our young waiter told us. "But most of the staff is Taiwanese or Hong Kong Chinese."

With a couple of beers, some edamame (salted soy beans) and a seaweed salad, our Kobe beef and robata dinner for two ended up costing about $80. I found it odd that there was no rice, no noodles, or anything else you could fill up on. It was good food, but I left hungry and so did my date. As I drove north on Kirby, I almost convinced her that we should turn into the drive-thru lane at McDonald's. But she talked me out of it. Instead, we went to Miss Ann's Playpen to listen to some blues. And while we were there, owner Bobby Lewis kindly supplied us with some barbecued ribs and beans.

Lunch at Azuma is a much better deal. My dining companion and I sampled two of the specials. These came with a small salad and a bowl of miso soup to start. My favorite was the shrimp tempura bento box, a lacquered Japanese lunch tray with five compartments full of elegantly presented morsels. There were three skewers of crunchy shrimp, some tempura vegetables, and tempura fish, all with a pleasant soy-sesame dipping sauce. Then there was a salad of marinated cucumbers with chicken. Here and there, a few other little odds and ends were tucked into the box. Two pieces of sushi roll made with thin slices of rare beef were the best of these tidbits.

The other lunch special was a sushi assortment that included single pieces of tuna, salmon, white bass, escolar and a big "crunchy roll" cut into several pieces. The roll was made with avocado and smoked salmon with something that tasted like Rice Krispies inside.

"What's the crispy stuff?" I asked the sushi chef.

"It's tempura," he said.

"Tempura what?" I wanted to know.

"Just tempura," he replied. It took me a minute to realize what he was talking about, and then I wished I hadn't asked. Evidently, he's fishing little chunks of batter out of the deep fryer. If you wanted deep-fried crunchy batter bits rolled up with your fish, wouldn't you just order it fried?

Azuma's sushi chefs obviously are not catering to purists. Along with the tempura crispies, avocado, smoked salmon and rare beef, you'll also find such untraditional ingredients as cream cheese and jalapeños in the rolls here. It's fun to eat and bound to please the average Texas palate, but it's a long way from Japanese sushi.

On my last visit to Azuma, we were seated next to a large table of loud young guys in scrubs, probably a bunch of medical students doing their residencies at a nearby hospital. There were also several tables of college students in T-shirts and shorts and a young couple with a baby who was crawling around on the banquette. Despite its tony decor and upscale address, the restaurant draws a pleasantly disheveled clientele -- unlike sushi bars such as The Fish, where you always seem to be walking into a fashion show.

This time, I ordered dinner with a single-minded sense of purpose. I wanted to see if I could get full at this restaurant for a reasonable amount of money. We started off with a spider roll, made with soft-shell crab, and a "pink lady" roll, made with crunchy broiled salmon skin, cream cheese, cucumber and topped with smoked salmon. We also ordered the Azuma fish, which comes to the table in a bizarre iron cooker called a konro. There's an open flame in the bottom of this contraption, and above it a frame that holds what looks like a big coffee filter. The fish stew simmers inside the thick coated paper just above the flame. The stew consisted of chunks of mahimahi cooked with onions and asparagus in a sweet sauce, and it was quite good.

Last and certainly not least, I tilted the odds toward satisfaction by ordering Azuma's pork katsu. Katsu describes the Japanese method of deep-frying with a light bread-crumb coating. Pork is the most traditional katsu item, and it usually comes with a red pureed fruit sauce called tonkatsu, which looks and tastes a whole lot like barbecue sauce.

My date rolled her eyes when the plate arrived. The huge slab of crispy bread-crumb-coated fried pork was cut into fingers for easy eating, and there was plenty of the sweet and tangy tonkatsu sauce to dip it in. I ordered another large bottle of Sapporo Draft and dug in.

The coating kept the meat moist and added a satisfying layer of starchy crunch. The barbecue sauce was one-dimensional, though, all sweet and no bite. I wondered what a rice-flour-based cream gravy would taste like. By the time I finished off the whole plate of pork and my second beer, I wasn't just satisfied, I was uncomfortably, loosen-my-belt full. And I proudly told my date that my mission was accomplished.

"Well, of course you can get full if you go to a sushi restaurant and get a chicken-fried steak," she snorted. With the dusting of bread crumbs, the dish is actually closer to a pork cutlet Milanese than the buttermilk-battered beef we call chicken-fried steak, I pointed out, but admittedly, there are similarities.

I would much rather have filled up on about a pound of that dreamier-than-chocolate American Kobe beef steak. (Keep the hot rocks and butter coming, waiter!) And for a steak like that, the 90 bucks (three times six ounces at $30) wouldn't be unreasonable. But I think it's an important service to the public to find something affordable at a fancy Japanese restaurant like Azuma that one can fall back on in case of extreme hunger.

Okay, so it isn't as subtle as sushi. But katsu, I argue on behalf of everyone who has ever left a Japanese restaurant hungry, is a legitimate Asian cooking style in its own right. And wouldn't it be tragic if, in our haste to experience the many nuances of raw fish, we overlooked an authentic, albeit obscure, contribution to world cuisine like Japanese fried pork with barbecue sauce?

My date didn't buy it. And I know what she's thinking: We had it right the first time. You enjoy the robata, the sushi and the other Japanese delicacies at Azuma -- and then you go somewhere else for barbecue.

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