Chef Chat, Part 2: Manabu Horiuchi of Kata Robata — Japan in Houston

Chef Manabu Horiuchi in the place you're most likely to see him at Kata Robata: behind the sushi counter.
Chef Manabu Horiuchi in the place you're most likely to see him at Kata Robata: behind the sushi counter.
Photo by Julie Soefer

In Part 1 of our Chef Chat with Manabu Horiuchi (called Hori or Hori-san by his friends and best customers for short), we learned how and why he came to Houston. From the age of 12, Horiuchi knew he wanted to be a sushi chef, and achieved that dream. Most days, you can find him at Kata Robata, the acclaimed restaurant he’s been at for the past six years.

Soon he’ll be involved with another restaurant: Izakaya, which is exactly as it sounds. An izakaya is a type of restaurant where the emphasis is on drinks and food that goes well with those drinks. The fare tends to be light and playful small plates. Today we’ll find out what kind of menu is planned for the new spot, which will hopefully be open in about a month.

First, however, we wanted to get some recommendations from Horiuchi on what dishes visitors to Kata Robata absolutely must try. The immediate answer was obvious and yet can’t be overstated. “Sushi,” he answered with no hesitation. “Our sushi is some of the best. The amberjack with foie gras appetizer is an interesting very popular. It’s foie gras with amberjack marinated with lime juice. The idea is to eat both the fish and foie gras together. Not many do that kind of style [of sushi], so it’s a signature dish around here.”

The chawanmushi is another must-try dish. According to Horiuchi, the savory egg custard is “a very traditional dish” and it comes in two options: uni or foie gras.

One of Kata Robata's new dishes, the Hot Stone Unagi.
One of Kata Robata's new dishes, the Hot Stone Unagi.
Photo by Paula Murphy

Rich Akaushi beef skewers are sure to please meat lovers, and general manager Blake Lewis, who was also there for part of the interview, suggested the tempura. Lobster tempura is currently on the menu, but Kata Robata always has shrimp tempura available as well. “I think we do tempura frying at its highest level. I’ve tried it at other places and it’s just not the same,” said Lewis. It’s definitely a dish that many take for granted and can be so much more ethereal than other, more standard offerings.

The ultimate Kata Robata experience is to make a reservation in advance for omakase. An omakase meal is one where the diner trusts the chef to select dishes to create a multicourse experience. “We make a cold appetizer, then from the kitchen will come chawanmushi or soup. Then there’s fish — sushi and sashimi. It’s the best ingredients of the day.”

“The flow of the dinner is starting with the lighter things and ended a little heavier so the guest is full,” added Lewis. “He makes sure every dish complements the last dish, and I think that’s one of the things he’s best at. As dinner progresses, the last dish is delicious but then the next one makes your experience even better because they build upon each other. His dinners really tell a story.”

Chef Horiuchi’s omakase meals are usually eight or nine courses. “We can do more if the customer wants, like 10 or 11. Some people eat a lot,” he laughed.

Something old is new again at Kata Robata. Assuming all goes well with the remodeling, within a week Kata will be able to seat diners on the revamped patio. Considering how popular and packed the restaurant is every night, the extra seating will be most welcome. There’s a lounge area for people waiting for tables, which will help lessen the swarm of diners who tend to crowd the area around the front door.

Pan-seared U-10 scallops with Mentaiko sauce at Kata Robata
Pan-seared U-10 scallops with Mentaiko sauce at Kata Robata
Photo by Paula Murphy

Especially important for Houston’s summers: The patio is mostly enclosed with clear plastic blinds and plexiglass so that guests can not only see outside but can also enjoy air conditioning. Ducts run the entire length of the patio. In time, there will be some new furniture, too.

Soon, the new Azuma Group restaurant, simply named Izakaya, will open in Midtown. There, the menu will focus on drinks and lighter bites or small plates. How will it differ from Kata Robata’s menu?

“First off, no sushi!” emphasized Horiuchi. “An izakaya is like a Japanese pub. The food will be kind of simple. It will be comfortable and fun.” Sorry, ramen lovers. That’s not among the initial offerings, although Horiuchi says that there will be soba noodles. His longtime sous, chef Jean-Philippe Gaston, will be executive chef at the izakaya.

Other offerings will include “lots of skewers, housemade meatballs, beef tongue, chicken skin and chicken gizzards,” according to Horiuchi. So, what are the drink offerings?

“Everything!” exclaimed Lewis. “We retained Claire Sprouse from Tin Roof to do the cocktail program.” (If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Sprouse bartended in Houston at places like Beaver’s and Grand Prize Bar for years before heading west to work in San Francisco for a while.)

“Antonio Gianola of Houston Wine Merchant did the wine list and they got some dumb guy to do the sake list,” Lewis continued with a laugh. Of course, we have proof that guy isn’t so dumb. Both Lewis and Horiuchi even made the extra effort of getting sake certifications this past December.

Another employee and even one of the owners took the test as well. “He had the higher score,” said Horiuchi of Lewis with a rueful grin. Like wine certifications, part of the sake test included blind tasting.

Drinking will be as much the focus at Izakaya as food. “People may come in and order two or three rounds of drinks before they even consider ordering food,” said Lewis. “Here at Kata Robata, you’re going to order food and go, ‘Oh, yeah, and can I get a glass of wine?’ There, you might go have a couple of sakes or a beer before you even consider ordering food. ”

If you’re looking for a slow night to visit Kata Robata, you’re out of luck. According to Lewis, it's busy “every day that ends in a ‘y’.”

We asked Horiuchi what he enjoys eating during those few times he’s off work. “I like everything!” he said enthusiastically. “Vietnamese food, Chinese food, Italian food. I went to Coltivare last night. I loved their food. Everything was so fresh. I like to go to Huynh on the east side of downtown. Mala Sichuan is good. I like to eat, so I normally go to restaurants on my days off.”

On a final note, Horiuchi wants people to know how important his staff is to Kata Robata. “This restaurant’s success is based on taking care of customers. It’s not only me in this restaurant. All of the staff here is very nice.” 

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