Twice a year, Kata Robata transforms its patio into an izakaya, a casual after-work drinking place with Japanese bar food. Izakaya-type food is not fancy. They are the Japanese equivalent to Spanish tapas, small dishes meant to be shared over Japanese sake or beer.
To my knowledge, Houston doesn't have any bona-fide izakayas, so when I heard the announcement about their "Aki no Matsuri!" Izakaya Autumn Festival, I made a point of being there.
The izakaya format can be a la carte or all-you-can-eat. In fact, the ones I've visited in Vancouver are typically a la carte. But Kata Robata doesn't do anything halfway, and for an entrance fee of $45, guests were regaled with dish after dish, free-flowing sake provided by Virtuoso Selections, custom drinks created by David Buehrer, and more. To set the mood, in the background, the smoky vocals of a live Japanese jazz singer turned the patio into a bona-fide lounge.
My friend got there early and snagged primo seating right in front of the bar, where we could see all the food as it came out from the kitchen. At the robata grill, Chef de Cuisine Gabriel Medina was hand-roasting chicken yakitori, oysters, and suckling pig.
From the kitchen, Executive Chef Manabu Horiuchi, aka "Hori-san," sent out dish after dish, like inari stuffed with rice, mushrooms, and edamame, sizzling plates of yakitori with quail egg, a type of fried-chicken nugget on kim chi risotto, Japanese-style potato salad and more.
It was basically izakaya food, omakase-style. The food kept on coming, leading up to the final dish of the night, Gabriel Medina's oxtail ramen, which is currently available on the dinner menu for a limited time. The rich essence of oxtail and umami flavors totally hit the spot on a chilly evening outdoors.
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At the height of the evening, as I observed the throngs of people crowding the bar, the hanging paper lanterns blowing in the wind, and laughing faces of contented and somewhat drunken guests, it truly felt like I was in Japan, drinking sake at an outdoor bar. What a great night. If only it happened more than twice a year.