There was an hour-and-a-half wait for a table the first time I visited Ra Sushi, the wild new singles bar and sushi restaurant on Westheimer in Highland Village. It was a Thursday night, and the second-story joint was throbbing with loud dance music and crowded with well-dressed River Oaks club-hoppers.
The restaurant looks out on the palm-tree-lined street, and when the weather is nice, they open the enormous windows for a spectacular tree-house effect. My teenage daughter and her friend were my dining companions, and they felt quite mature hanging out with the crowd of twentysomethings in the bar. They made friends with the DJ, who played some of their favorite songs.
But I was getting a little impatient after 45 minutes, so I went over to the hostess stand to check on our status. There, I was surprised to hear a guy in perfectly tailored pants tell his date they would get the next table. I walked up to him and asked how he'd managed to do that when he'd just walked in and lots of people were waiting. He vaguely suggested that I should "talk it over with the hostess."
When Nice Pants and his date did indeed get a choice table by the open windows a few minutes later, a muscle-bound guy who'd been waiting more than an hour stormed the hostess stand and began shouting.
"That guy just walked in and got a table when we've been waiting over an hour!" Mr. Muscles protested to the hostess. I struck up a conversation with him. "I entertain all the time in this town, and I'm not bringing any more of my business to this place," he fumed.
Judging by the crowd and the wait, Ra Sushi won't miss Mr. Muscles much. But I kept wondering how Nice Pants had rated VIP treatment. He wasn't a celebrity, as far as I could tell. Then it dawned on me: No doubt the guy had slipped the hostess a tip.
That reminded me of a story in Gourmet magazine a few years ago in which the writer walked into Manhattan's most exclusive restaurants without a reservation and tried to bribe his way in. He was shocked to discover that a $20 bill morphed the most arrogant maitre d' into a fawning puppy dog almost everywhere he went. I decided to try it myself sometime.
I think the teenagers were actually disappointed when we finally got a table in the corner of the dining room after our 90 minutes of hanging around. They'd been having fun in the bar. But the biggest letdown of the evening was the sushi.
We started with Ra's signature sushi roll, the Viva Las Vegas, which the menu describes as "kani kama and cream cheese rolled in rice and seaweed, lightly tempura battered and topped with spicy tuna, crab mix and sliced lotus root finished with eel sauce and spinach tempura flakes." It came to the table impressively garnished with fried slices of lotus root standing straight up on top of the roll like a row of wagon wheels. The roll was something to look at, but the tempura-battered glop was utterly tasteless.
"Kani kama" is a euphemism for fake crab that I hadn't heard before. The Viva Las Vegas roll turned out to be a lot of fake crab and cream cheese rolled in seaweed and then coated with tempura batter and fried. The topping was a slurry of unrecognizable fish goo. In fact, the cute lotus root garnish was about the only thing this roll had going for it.
We also sampled the Tootsy Maki roll. This one contains "crab mix," which is a combination of fake crab and real crabmeat with mayo and seasonings. The roll also had some shrimp and cucumber in it, but in the end it was just as bland as the Vegas roll. Thankfully, we got an assortment of regular sushi, too. The salmon was shiny and firm, with a good flavor, and the chewy surf clam was excellent. The yellowtail sashimi was dull-colored and too soft. All three of us fought over the unagi -- the marinated and grilled freshwater eel was the best thing on the plate.
I asked my daughter what she thought about the food. "It's baby-step sushi," she said. But in her view, that wasn't all bad. This would be an excellent place to take her high school friends who were just starting to eat sushi, she thought. There are so many rolls made with imitation crab, smoked salmon, cream cheese and tempura shrimp that you don't have to eat any raw fish at Ra.
On my second visit, my dining companions were a gorgeous blond and a striking brunette. The hostess said there was an hour wait -- a perfect opportunity to experiment with bribery. When the hostess was alone, I walked over to her and slid a folded $20 bill across the top of the waiting list.
"Do you think you could speed things up a bit?" I asked. She took the money and nodded enthusiastically. We were seated in less than five minutes.
When we took our seats at the sushi bar, my brunette companion confessed that when she worked as a hostess at a popular Houston restaurant, she took tips all the time. The amounts ranged from $5 to $20, she said.
I immediately suspected that I had overtipped the hostess. Would $10 have done the trick? If 20 percent of the bill is standard for waitstaff, what's the guideline for tipping the host or hostess? As a first-timer, I would welcome a few words of advice from anybody with experience in these matters.
I can't say I was very impressed with the seats $20 had bought me, either. Normally, I love to sit at the sushi bar, where I can see the fish and watch the chef at work. But the three stools we got were at the far end beside the entrance to the kitchen. The refrigerator case in front of us didn't contain any glistening fresh fish -- it was where they kept the fake crab and cream cheese. And the sushi chef we got to observe didn't inspire much confidence either.
He was a heavy-set white guy with oversize black eyeglasses. As he cut sushi, I noticed that the index finger on his left hand was heavily bandaged, wrapped in plastic and sticking straight out. And there wasn't much doubt how he'd incurred the injury. While we sat there, the head sushi chef came over to him and chided him for his sloppy knife work. Cut the fish in one clean motion, the chef said -- stop sawing at it!
But despite his lumberjack technique, his war wound and his resemblance to the dancing man of the AstroWorld commercials, this guy put out some decent sushi. The Latin-American albacore, which featured alternating slices of avocado and albacore tuna sashimi garnished with pine nuts, cashews and cilantro and lightly coated with a soy-garlic sauce, was the best dish I ate at Ra. The pile of uni, or sea urchin lobes, wasn't bad either. They tasted like iodine sherbet.
The beef teriyaki, a nice cut of meat grilled medium and served with white rice, was deadly dull. I'm sure it's on the menu to provide a reassuring haven for meat-and-potatoes folks. And so was the chicken katsu, which came with wasabi mashed potatoes and a coleslaw reminiscent of KFC.
The chicken tasted like the Japanese version of chicken-fried chicken. "Katsu" means cutlet, and in this case it was a pounded chicken breast coated with panko (Japanese for bread crumbs), deep-fried and served with ketchup-based tonkatsu sauce.
In Japan they call breaded and fried tonkatsu (pork cutlets) and other deep-fried meats yoshoku, or Japanese-style Western food. But why would we want to eat the Japanese version of American food in America? For the same reason that young people in Japan eat California rolls, I guess. You get to feel cosmopolitan without the risk of actually eating anything unfamiliar.
Three hot blonds in come-and-get-me clothes were seated next to us at the sushi bar. They started dancing in their stools when a song they liked came on the sound system. With all their bouncing, I couldn't help but stare. When they had finished eating, they opened their purses and began reapplying their makeup. Not just a lipstick touch-up, mind you, but foundation, eye shadow and the whole ordeal. That's something I'd never seen at a sushi bar.
No wonder happy hour is so dead at Joyce's Ocean Grill a few blocks down Westheimer. Ra Sushi is among the hottest restaurants in town right now. I highly recommend it if you're young and good-looking, whether you like raw fish or not.
And if the wait is over an hour, I also recommend you let a dead president do the talking.
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