Several restaurants, namely Ava, Trenza and Katsuya by Starck, all tried to make a go of it at West Ave. Even having big chef names attached, like Robert del Grande and Katsuya Uechi, did not help these restaurants succeed. West Ave may be great for residents, but it's an awful design for business visibility. It's an imposing wall of windows and balconies on the corner of Kirby and Westheimer, and there's no way for passersby to know what's hiding inside.
Nara -- now called Nara Sushi & Korean Kitchen -- resides where Katsuya used to be and is up against the same challenges. Unlike with Eddie V's on the corner, there is no Vegas-style sign to draw attention and Korean-Japanese fusion is trickier to sell in Houston than juicy steaks.
Nara's chef-owner, Donald Chang, is respected for his Uptown Sushi place (in the much better-designed Uptown Park center in the Galleria area). But he is no longer cooking at Nara, although he carries the title of executive chef. Head sushi chef Jojo Urbano is the one actually in the kitchen. (Houston Press confirmed this with a call to the restaurant.)
There are two sides to the menu: the kitchen side and the sushi side. The servers will spend a few minutes explaining this to you. They cannot, however, accurately explain what's in the actual dishes.
Part of the joy of a Korean meal is the great variety of banchan, small side dishes that precede and accompany the meal. They are symbolic of the host's generosity. In traditional Korean restaurants in Houston, diners typically receive cabbage kimchi, a small green salad tossed with rice vinegar, soy sauce and sesame oil and bean sprouts. Beyond that, the dishes are a surprise and a big part of what makes the meal so enjoyable. You might be served dried anchovies tossed in chile oil; cold, cubed potatoes; soybeans cooked until soft with a little brown sugar -- all sorts of things. Banchan are usually also included in the cost of the entrées.
Nara will sell you a dish of three types of kimchi for $6, which doesn't seem nearly as hospitable. Two different servers could not identify what was in the middle compartment of the divided dish. One claimed it was rhubarb. The other went and asked someone else so he could be sure. It was shredded daikon (musaengchae). To its left was cucumber (oi kimchi) and to the right was more daikon (kkakdugi), in cubes this time instead of shredded. So two of the three kimchis are made from the same main ingredient. That's not much fun.
On the other hand, Nara's "flap buns," also known as bao, are served with potato chips in bamboo baskets. The bulgogi ones are filled with chopped beef. It's kind of a Korean-style sloppy joe basket. The idea is fun, but incongruous with the white-tablecloth environment.
The octopus usuzukuri is one of Nara's best dishes and shows how the Korean-Japanese fusion concept can work when there's good balance and execution. Cool, thin slices of octopus are each lightly dotted with a dab of gochujang (chojang for short), a red chile sauce thickened with glutinous rice and given a pungent punch with fermented soybeans. Little golden clusters of smelt roe, or masago, make pleasing little pops as they burst open between your teeth, delivering little doses of brine along the way. A fine cabbage kimchi and sunomono salad, made with lightly marinated cucumber, add crunch and tartness that beautifully rounds out the dish.
The open-faced soup dumplings (called mandoo or mandu in Korean) is another dish representative of the excellent execution within Nara's capabilities. Normally, the tops of soup dumpling wrappers are twisted closed, but we loved the open-top presentation that display the contents of Spanish Duroc pork, roasted garlic and dashi gelee. The wrappers were sturdy without being too thick, and, with their artful pleated edges, reminiscent of a flower moments away from fully opening.
Regrettably, delightful dishes like these are few. "Roasted purple cauliflower" proved a misleading name for a multicolored medley of which only three florets were actually purple. The rest were white, gold and green. Perhaps this dish should be named "rainbow cauliflower" or "cauliflower medley." Either way, they weren't roasted long enough and the stems were still hard.
Worse was the "Hot Lava Rock Berkshire Pork," a poorly planned cook-it-yourself dish. You receive a hot brick (the "lava rock") to cook meat upon, as well as some accompanying mushrooms and chile sauces. The problem is that the thinly sliced raw pork comes in tight little rolls, so the diner has to unwind and flatten it in order to cook it. Raw pork is not something you want to have to touch with even the blunt end of your chopsticks or bare fingers, but it is impossible to unwind the meat using only the provided tongs. It was an experience deserving of a disgusted upper-lip curl that would make Billy Idol proud.
We worked through several sushi dishes, and there was nothing that would give a fish lover a reason to choose Nara over highly regarded Kata Robata, which is just a few blocks down the street. The first two pieces of salmon belly were cut incorrectly, with the fat running lengthwise instead of crosswise, which provides more tenderness. Two more, ordered as a double check, were cut correctly, so there are varying levels of skill among Nara's sushi chefs.
The delicate ingredients of the "red roll" -- yellowfin tuna, fried Korean sesame leaf, avocado, cucumber and spicy sprouts -- were rendered meaningless by the pungent chojang sauce. The sauce is wonderful, but it needs to be partnered with ingredients that can stand up to and benefit from the addition.
The presentation of bibimbap is proof-positive that some things should never, ever be prepared tableside. The server brings it out and it looks just great. It has a whole egg on top with a beautiful golden yolk, julienne carrots, zucchini, and, if added to the order, slices of bulgogi.
The server then proceeds to ruin the dish, taking it upon himself to break and stir in the egg and vegetables and disturb the rice, which, left to its own devices, would have been happily toasting away to a golden crunch. To add insult to injury, he then adds a hefty amount of the spicy chojang sauce, affording you no opportunity to add it according to your own taste. Why bother ordering this Korean classic here instead of at the food court at H-Mart? It's tasty and less expensive there, and they have the courtesy to let you ruin your own dish as you see fit.
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Another dismaying sight: delicate slices of hamachi topped with shaved Parmesan cheese. The aromatic cheese does the fish no favors at all, but it is part of the garnish in the Japanese hamachi with jalapeño ponzu. This is one of those times when the Italian adage should apply: No cheese with fish -- especially raw fish. Perhaps it's Nara's try at Japanese-Italian fusion? It doesn't work.
Is Nara meant to be Korean Cuisine 101, with dumbed-down flavors to placate timid diners who would never steer their cars toward Long Point Drive, where Korean restaurants are mainstays? Is it a place for the young and hip to fill up on $9 Philadelphia rolls before going on a bar crawl? That would explain the distracting, rattling techno music that was pumped over the sound system on a Friday night. It suited the two tables of partygoers, but it's unlikely the five tables of older people in business professional attire appreciated it.
Nara is working on constructing an entrance that faces Kirby so that more diners can find the place. However, if it doesn't figure out what it stands for, those guests will only be one-time visitors. Trying to please everyone ultimately pleases no one.
Red roll $13 Japanese hamachi with jalapeño ponzu $15 Octopus usuzukuri $15 Peppercorn tuna usuzukuri $15 Belly fatty salmon (sake toro) nigiri $2.50 each Yellowtail sashimi (hamachi) $8.50 Bulgogi flap buns $12 Roasted purple cauliflower $11 Berkshire pork collar "dae ji gogi" $20 Kimchi 3-ways $6 Hot stone vegetable rice bowl "dolsot bibimbap" $10 (add bulgogi -- $6) Philadelphia roll $9