Flounder Fish & Chips
During flounder season, I'm always looking for tasty flatfish dishes. I hit the jackpot at Kata Robata, the stellar new Japanese grill and sushi bar on Richmond at Kirby. Listed simply as "fish & chips" on the daily specials menu, the basket of lightly fried flounder fingers and french fries was the most imaginative flounder dish I've ever had.
You generally see flounder served whole because it's expensive, and the flat profile makes it hard to filet without leaving a lot of meat on the bones. So I was surprised that anybody would use flounder to make fish and chips to begin with. But I should have known better than to question the judgment of Kata Robata head chef Manabu Horiuchi (Hori-San), one of the city's premier sushi chefs. He used to work at Kubo's Sushi Bar in Rice Village.
I had hoped to try Hori-san's omakase, but the chef wasn't there. Omakase is a tasting menu in which you put yourself in the chef's hands. At Kubo's, Hori-san was famous for imaginative creations like soy-marinated tuna and combinations using sea urchin as a topping. I've heard that he's come up with even wilder stuff at Kata Robata. But tonight, the wacky flounder fish and chips will have to suffice.
After filleting the fish, the kitchen lightly fried the flounder fingers in a breading along with fresh-cut potatoes. Then the head and bones were molded into a basket shape and deep-fried. The fish and chips came to the table in the crunchy fishbone basket. And since flounder bones are edible, you could eat the meaty bone basket when you were done with the fish.
Two of us split the $18 fish and chips special. The bald and affable manager stopped by our spot at the sushi bar after we ordered and warned that the dish might take awhile, so we ought to order some miso soup.
We got the soup along with an order of bold and buttery New Zealand salmon sushi. It was nothing like the farm-raised Chilean salmon sushi you usually get at Houston sushi bars — it cost a lot more too. In June, when Kata Robata first opened, it was serving Copper River salmon sushi.
The flounder was extremely fresh, and each finger was full-flavored and stunningly crisp. It easily fed us both. What an incredible value for $18. I had heard that Kata Robata was an excellent but overpriced restaurant. Based on my experience so far, I thought that this was an unfair criticism.
The daily specials menu included such rarities as Japanese ice fish, flounder sashimi and hamachi with foie gras. You can't fault Hori-san for charging top dollar for the finest fish and most expensive ingredients on the market. And there were lots of other items on the menu, like the flounder, that were good deals.
The manager came by and asked us how we liked the flounder fish and chips. I said it was an ingenious dish and asked how long it would be on the menu. The manager said he wasn't sure it would be offered much longer. The whole flounder was too much food for one person, so many couples were splitting the dish as we had. And then the bill came to only $9 per person.
"I'd rather sell $80 worth of sushi," he said with a smarmy smile.
His cynical comment ruined an otherwise wonderful dining experience. Was the guy trying to make us feel cheap? In retrospect, I realized that his recommendation about getting some miso soup and appetizers because the flounder took awhile to cook was just an attempt to jack up our bill.
No wonder so many people are complainingthe place is a rip-off.
The interior of Kata Robata is chic, modern and angular. The music is techno, and the crowd is hip and young. If you go out the back door, you'll find a cramped patio where a smoky robata grill is set up during happy hour. My dining companion was elated when she realized she was going to be able to smoke as many cigarettes as her heart desired, while I was enthralled by the skewered goodies and the happy hour prices.
There were several kinds of kushiyaki — meat and vegetables on skewers ready to be grilled — and nothing was more than five bucks. Domestic beer was $2 and Japanese beer $3 a bottle during happy hour. There were also lots of bargain sushi rolls.
The tropical spicy tuna roll was a mishmash of fruit, rice and chiles with not a lot of fish; it was the most expensive roll on the happy hour menu at $8. I liked the crunchy eel roll, made with grilled freshwater eel, a lot better. The $4 "rodeo roll" was stuffed with tuna and a wacky Japanese guacamole made with wasabi instead of salsa.
The beef kushiyaki, as the skewered steak chunks are known, came with a choice of shio (salt) or tare (teriyaki sauce) — we went for the teriyaki. We also got some grilled shiitake mushrooms to eat with the tender, juicy steaks. Three Japanese sausages speared into a raft reminded me of Owens breakfast sausage links. I drank a couple of $3 Sapporos, while my tablemate went for the lychee martinis. I liked the lychee fruit, but the cocktail was a little too sweet for my tastes.
We porked out. Three sushi rolls and three kushiyaki items plus two drinks apiece came to something like $40. I'm not sure if Kata Robata is trying to shake its reputation for being expensive with this cheap happy hour menu or what. But I gladly filled my face with loss leaders just to spite the manager.
After saying goodbye to my dinner companion, I was on my way out when I noticed Alison Cook, my counterpart from the Chronicle, at a table near the front. I invited myself to sit down and we swapped tall tales for a few minutes. I couldn't help but notice that Alison had ordered the exquisite-looking flounder sashimi. It came on a shimmering glass plate, so the transparent flounder slices seemed to glow.
She had also ordered four East Coast oysters with various toppings. She was washing these delicacies down with a gorgeously restrained rosé wine that she insisted I sample. Her elegant repast was a far cry from the beer and sausages I had eaten out back. But then again, Alison wasn't trying to teach the manager a lesson.
The differences between our two dining experiences illustrate the range of Kata Robata Sushi & Grill. Hori-san is serving some stunningly inventive dishes here. Granted, the fabulous stuff doesn't come cheap. But if you're on a budget, go during happy hour and you can still eat pretty well for $20. Either way, this is the most exciting Japanese restaurant in town and you need to check it out.
If the pushy manager comes by your table and suggests you order an extra dish, tell him to send you a free sample first and you'll think about it.
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