Live Lobster Sashimi and New Menu Items Wow at Azuma Kirby

It's been at least ten years since I've been to Azuma Kirby for anything, let alone sushi. Located in the upscale strip mall that also houses Crave Cupcakes, Azuma Kirby has not been my go-to destination for sushi or Japanese for longer than I can remember.

The owners, who also own Azuma Downtown, Soma Sushi, Kata Robata, and Azuma Sugarland, are trying to restore the reputation of Azuma Kirby to its heyday years ago, and they are relying on Japanese Executive Chef Masa Wakatsuki, who trained at the same culinary school in Osaka, Japan, as Kata Robata's Executive Chef Manabu Horiuchi, to do so.

For the past four months, Chef Masa has been revamping the menu in the hopes of attracting Japanese patrons and sushi aficionados. I had a chance to sample a Chef's Tasting menu recently. Let's just say that as a self-professed picky sushi eater, I was duly impressed, and not just with the sushi.

It started with a beautifully plated omakase bento box laden filled with a chef's choice of assorted delights. Pan-seared duck breast, sweet shrimp sunomoto, sweet fish robata, bamboo shoot with spinach miso, egg omelette and lotus roots with mentaiko were artfully displayed in a large bento box. My eyes devoured everything greedily, not knowing what would come next. "If you order the chef's omakase, I can make something like this for you as a first course," Chef Masa told me.

Next came the showstopper - Live Lobster Sashimi served in large square tray atop a bed of red seaweed and rocks. My lunch companion and I probably uttered the word "wow" about a dozen times as we oohed and aahed over the fact that the lobster was still moving, while its flesh had been prepared sashimi-style. A special one-day advance order, the sashimi lobster was reminiscent of the live sweet shrimp sashimi I've had in the past, but the flavor was more delicate, and utterly delicious. A freshly grated wasabi completed this awe-inspiring dish. Katharine Shilcutt recently wrote about the Five Best Foods Eaten Alive; had she had this dish, I'm sure it would have been number one on her list.

It. Was. Spectacular!

The next course was a simple Hiyayakko, or cold soft tofu, meticulously cut in rounds and served with green onion, grape tomato and kaiware. I appreciated this very traditional Japanese dish for its simplicity and marveled at how they were able to manipulate the soft tofu in to a round shape without breaking it. The rounds were stacked in an upside-down triangle with greens at the top, approximating the shape of a grape cluster.

A Grilled Saba, or mackerel, which I didn't think I would like, was surprisingly tasty and decidedly less fishy-tasting than I expected. Served atop a wooden plank, and lightly dusted with panko bread crumbs to give it a slight crisp, the fish was flaky and moist, while the fishiness I associate with mackerel was cancelled out in large part by thin layer of grand mustard and the accompanying sansho pepper.

An Age Sampler of fried stuffed lotus root with shrimp, calamari and shiso; eggplant with shrimp, calamari and cilantro; and shitake mushroom with shirmp, calamari and chives, reminded me of fried dim sum with a Japanese twist. All samplings were crisped to perfection, but it was the oozing eggplant that was notable for its contrasting texture and flavors.

Another favorite was the Yakitori of Pork belly and Kobe beef from the robata grill. The pork belly was dense, slightly crisp, slightly chewy, and burst with flavor, while the kobe beef was juicy and smoky, quite simply perfection on a stick. The yakitori was arguably better than the ones I've had in traditional Japanese izakayas and robata houses in Vancouver and LA, and I would go back here for these alone.

Next came a Chilean Sea Bass Age, with enoki mushrooms, snow peas, carrot and green onions in a clear consomme. I love it when fish is served in a consomme because it always enhances the moistness of the fish. This lovely traditional Japanese preparation was clean and light, and easy for anyone to like.

Wasabi Braised Wagyu Kobe Beef Shortribs, marinated in sake, wasabi and mirin, was the finale to our grand eight-course excursion. The meat was tender enough to slice with a fork and its flavors were wonderful, but I feel like it was a waste to braise the wagyu kobe beef shortribs, since wagyu is known for its marbling. Braising is traditionally used to tougher meats, and while I could not fault this dish on taste, a pan-seared or grilled wagyu kobe would have better highlighted this beef's unique taste profile.

The actual meal was finished, but we received a surprise at the end. The lobster claws from the lobster sashimi had been turned into a soup, and served in a cast iron mini-cauldron, making an already spectacular dish all the more fantastic.

Chef Masa came over at the end of the meal to see how we liked it, and I praised the unexpectedly excellent meal. Authentic Japanese? Check. Fresh ingredients and excellent quality? Check. Beautiful presentation? Check.

It's a meal I hope to repeat again very soon, and with the new power team of Executive Chef Masa and Kubo's/Kata Robata alum Takahisa Onishi helming the sushi counter, I think it's safe to say that as a dining destination, Azuma Kirby is well on its way to being on the map once again.

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Mai Pham is a contributing freelance food writer and food critic for the Houston Press whose adventurous palate has taken her from Argentina to Thailand and everywhere in between -- Peru, Spain, Hong Kong and more -- in pursuit of the most memorable bite. Her work appears in numerous outlets at the local, state and national level, where she is also a luxury travel correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide.
Contact: Mai Pham