Chalkboards and an open kitchen make Nabi a cozy place to enjoy a meal. See more in our slideshow.
The bowl of ramen that arrived on my table at Nabi last week looked and smelled like a minor masterpiece, even if it wasn't really traditional ramen. Like every other dish on the menu at this new Montrose restaurant, the soup was a rather astounding mash-up of traditional ramen styles: the thick, nutty broth and fatty shreds of pork shoulder from a tonkotsu ramen were topped with the green onions, pink-and-white kamaboko and the curly noodles of a shoyu ramen. And even though the broth was creamy and rich with the flavor of pork belly and pork shoulder, it had that signature black pepper bite of a much thinner shoyu ramen.
At the booth next to me sat Ryan Rouse and Brad Moore, the proprietors of Grand Prize Bar — the hipster hangout that's one of the nerve centers of young Montrose — over a working lunch. I'd ordered the extra-spicy ramen at the suggestion of Rouse, who pronounced it one of his favorites on the pan-Asian menu. He and Moore joked to me that Nabi had become their office since it opened in November of last year.
"We eat here probably five times a week," Moore laughed. I chuckled to myself, remembering the last time Moore and I had talked about Nabi, in January. He'd chased me out of a Heights art gallery in the middle of a bartending competition specifically to ask me one breathless question: "Have you been to Nabi yet?"
I had, and the two of us spent a few good minutes gushing to each other about the new restaurant, which had become a mutual favorite in only a few short months. "You have to help me blow it up," I remember saying to Moore.
"No, you have to help me blow it up!" he joked back. Now here we both were, by coincidence, all of us trading secrets about the best dishes we'd tried so far. Before long, the two barmen had left and my ramen — with extra spice — had arrived.
The extra spice at Nabi costs a dollar more, and is comprised of two ramekins each brimming a raucous red. One contains shichimi togarashi, a Japanese spice blend that's mainly comprised of ground red chile peppers kicked up with Sichuan numbing peppers, sesame seeds, ginger, roasted orange peel and more. The other contains a wet spice mixture that's mostly pickled ginger. Together, they set the pork ramen on fire.
I gulped one blazing bite after another and cooled off in between with sips of Kirin Ichiban, a Japanese lager that's made for the kind of stifling humidity this spring has brought us. As I ate my way through it, I marveled over the fact that I was finally eating a truly remarkable bowl of ramen in Houston in the most unremarkable of settings. Nabi is not a see-and-be-seen hotspot. It is not a high-end Japanese restaurant. It is not a cafe in Chinatown populated by fellow ramen aficionados. It's simply a warm and cozy neighborhood restaurant serving small plates of beautifully constructed modern Asian cuisine with correspondingly small prices, wholly unassuming yet full of exciting possibilities.
Even more remarkable is the fact that Nabi nearly didn't happen at all.
Chef and owner Ji Kang never meant to move to Houston. In fact, he likes to joke, Houston was a last resort.
Kang made a name for himself in Dallas as chef de cuisine at Dish, the enormous Oak Lawn spot that's half restaurant, half nightclub. Its restaurant half has garnered plenty of acclaim for both its affordable fare and uniquely modern dishes that more often than not feature seasonal produce and locally raised meat. Kang clearly took a few of Dish's concepts to heart when he decided to open a restaurant of his own, although Nabi's understated, clean-lined dining room is miles away from that of Dish, which D Magazine's Nancy Nichols once called "garishly chic."
Kang first tried to open his restaurant in Austin — his hometown — but was stymied by the high rent of the places that interested him. He then looked back to Dallas, back to his friends in the industry, back to the city where he'd attended culinary school at the Art Institute. But Dallas didn't suit his needs, either. And at just the right time, Tomo — which previously occupied Nabi's space along one of the Lower Westheimer curves — shut its doors. Kang moved on the spot quickly.
Only a few months in, he's still a bit shaken up by the move to a city he barely knows. "I only get to eat within two miles of here," he told me one day as we talked ramen. But so far, he's impressed with both the city itself and his own determination to stick it out in unfamiliar territory. And he's glad he chose Houston after all.
"If I'd stayed in Dallas or Austin, I would have been too comfortable," Kang said. Being in a new city has forced him to meet new people.
People like James and Megan Silk, the proprietors of neighboring Montrose restaurant Feast, who quickly became regulars. They introduced Kang to their own meat purveyors, which include Texas ranches like Harrison Hog Farms and Black Hill Ranch. Kang also has been braving the Eastside farmers' market on Saturday mornings, picking up produce for the week and meeting new chefs along the way. He talked about getting to know like-minded peers like Seth Siegel-Gardner, a recent Houston Press MasterMind award winner and part of the Pilot Light restaurant group, and Lyle Bento of The Modular food truck, and how Houston — and his fellow Montrose restaurateurs, in particular — has been more welcoming than he ever imagined possible.
Even old Tomo regulars have made Nabi their new home. When they first started coming in, Kang said, they were all asking for sushi — Tomo's specialty, although using "specialty" here is being kind — and he briefly panicked. Although he is the son of a sushi chef, Kang had not planned on serving sushi at his own restaurant.
"I wanted to concentrate on these things: Green, Bowl, Seafood, Meat," he said, pointing to the four simple categories on Nabi's menu that feature small plates of dishes like veal tongue with pickled celery and spiced yogurt or a warm mushroom salad with hazelnuts and fresh herbs.
He caved and added sushi anyway, although it's still sushi the Ji Kang way: The "breakfast roll" is stuffed with pork belly and a fried egg under pickled radishes, the "turf" is filled with grilled rib eye, asparagus and crispy shallots. There's also regular nigirizushi and sashimi available by request. And they're good, to be sure. But it's in those small plates where Kang's talents truly shine.
That crispy veal tongue is another of Kang's minor masterpieces. It's made all the more impressive by its price: $9 for a plate large enough to split between two or three people. Kang always wanted to serve a tongue dish, and found that the tender veal tongue from his butcher was only $1 more. It was a dollar well spent.
The tongue, because it is all wonderfully fatty muscle and no bones or tendons, is tender enough to slice with a fork. Unlike other organ meats, it has no coppery taste to it, just the pure, dense flavor of beef. Kang lightly batters and pan-sears the veal tongue and carves it into pieces that are perfectly sized for picking up with a pair of chopsticks like a sashimi slice of dark red bluefin tuna.
Drag the hot veal tongue through the cool, tart yogurt and thrill to the sensation of the flavors as they bounce and then bond together on your own tongue. Finish it with a bite of pickled celery that erases the fatty richness of the veal from your mouth, so you can experience the bounding sensations of the next bite all over again.
That's not to say the veal tongue is perfect. Many of Kang's dishes still need adjustment here and there, and he knows it. The tongue needs salt, just as his otherwise terrific bowl of ginger duck with noodles does. The combination of scallions, shiitake mushrooms, shishito peppers and hazelnuts in the ginger duck broth is almost enough — it's maddeningly close to perfect — but wants for the balance of a pinch or two of salt.
But the great thing about the menu at Nabi is how even if one dish falls just a little bit short, two others are there to pick up the slack. That warm mushroom salad is a revelation to anyone who only eats button mushrooms in salads, with a changing lineup of mushrooms from giant porcini cut into meaty slices to delicate tangles of oyster mushrooms scattered amidst roasted hazelnuts and crispy shallots. There's a decidedly modern swoop of creamy herbal dressing down one side of the white plate, but the roasted mushrooms are good enough to eat on their own.
And then there are the standbys: dishes that I find myself coming back to again and again in spite of myself. Crunchy strips of calamari that are elevated with a sticky lemon marmalade. Addictive edamame pods coated in a dark spice rub of toasted chile flakes. Crispy little potstickers filled with a savory "24-hour" brisket that bears juice like a piece of ripe fruit. Grilled romaine hearts — yes, warm lettuce — treated ever so lightly with a sprinkle of sea salt, citrus and a light herb dressing. A head-on shrimp and short rib fried rice with a bright undercurrent of citrus that drove me so crazy on the first taste, I had to hunt down Kang specifically to ask him what he'd done to the dish.
"Preserved lemon," he told me with a grin. The rind and juice cut the fattiness in what could be an overly greasy dish but is instead transformed with this one small touch. It's these small touches (and small prices) that are so important, though: Nabi could easily be overshadowed by the wealth of other hot new restaurants that have opened in Montrose in these last few, hectic months — places like Uchi, Underbelly, Roost and Roots Bistro — yet here, the parking lot is always full.
I worry about how full it is, in fact, because the one area in which Nabi notably stumbles is in its often-understaffed dining room. Good help is hard to find, especially in a neighborhood where new places lure talented servers and cooks away every day. I have faith, though, that Kang and his crew will pull through this rough spot as they earn their sea legs. And I also have faith that Nabi's growing core of heavy hitters and regulars will be patient with the new restaurant.
After all, Houston is nothing if not hospitable to newcomers. Even those from Dallas. And especially those who come bearing ramen.
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