Suddenly it seems everyone is talking about Nara. After remaining somewhat under the radar for the past several weeks, Nara, which opened last night, is now being discussed on blogs and on TV, And at first glance, you might wonder why.
For starters, it's a Korean and Japanese restaurant opening inside the Loop, where there isn't much Korean food to be found. It's the brainchild of chef Donald Chang, who spent years training with sushi masters and opened Uptown Sushi in 2003. It's quite striking on the inside. Oh yeah, and in spite of the fact that it's joining other mega restaurants helmed by chefs with local celebrity status, it's doing something that Houston -- and the rest of the country -- hasn't really seen before: Modern Korean.
If it sounds improbable that something similar hasn't been done already in this day and age, in a city so focused on food and dining, then think about it for a minute. We have many fabulous Korean restaurants out in the Long Point Road area, and Chris Shepherd and other chefs are certainly reimagining Korean dishes from time to time, but there really hasn't been a restaurant in Houston devoted to serving contemporary Korean food in a fine dining setting. Until Nara.
"I traveled to Korea for research about two months ago," explains Chang, who was born in Seoul but has lived in the U.S. most of his life. "I just wanted to see what the trends were, and mostly to see if what I'm planning to do here is already being done anywhere in Korea or here. I was a little intimidated, because I didn't really see anything like this, even in New York."
Can Houston support this kind of innovation? Chang thinks so, but he also wants to emphasize that his version of Korean food will keep many beloved traditional elements intact. His goal is to show how Korean food can evolve into lighter, healthier fare while maintaing aspects of the cuisine that he remembers from his childhood and the food his mother makes.
"I think with all cuisines, you need to understand the basics," Chang says. "I've been eating my mom's food for 40 years, so I asked her about some historical things. I wanted to make sure I have a firm mind-set in traditional Korean food before I started tweaking it."
Some of the tweaks are more noticeable than others, especially when Chang brings in the Japanese techniques and flavors he's been studying for the past 23 years. Next to rice cakes with kochujang (Korean hot sauce) and oxtail, you might find a Japanese-influenced "spicy butter crab roll" and a "Korean fajita roll" with marinated wagyu beef. Chang does plan to devote an entire room to Korean barbecue, though, so he's built grills into the tables (like many restaurants in Korea have) so guests can cook their meat and vegetables at their tables. The flavors may not all be traditionally Korean, but the technique is.
In addition to building grills into some of the tables and erecting a large cherry tree surrounded by seating at the entrance to Nara, Chang emphasized that he wanted the space to be intimate and have a warm, comfortable feel.
"It's 7,000 square feet," Chang says. "But I wanted it to be relaxing, and I intentionally minimized the headcount by getting oversized chairs for the space. Isaac Preminger designed it, but he's a minimalist, so I fought for the cherry blossom tree.
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And it is a beautiful tree. Just like the name Nara, which has meaning in both the Japanese and Korean languages, the cherry tree is a symbol for both countries. Nara is a forward-thinking city in Japan and the word for "country" in Korean, while the tree became symbolic of both countries following the Japanese occupation of Korea.
Beyond that, says Chang, who doesn't like to just sit and think under trees? That's how he came up with the idea for Nara, which, so far, seems like a great one.