The order was straightforward enough: a bowl of miso soup to start off dinner. However, what my waiter was bearing toward my table perplexed me: a soup plate containing small heaps of finely sliced leek, small cubes of tofu, paper-thin mushroom slices, seaweed leaves, minced fish flesh -- and no liquid. Where was the soup? Moments later, my confusion was dispelled as the waiter produced a small teapot and filled my plate with hot miso dashi -- soybean paste-doped fish stock -- transforming the arrangement of sliced ingredients into a perfectly fresh bowl of miso shiru. Not only did the presentation steam the seaweed leaves into a tender succulence and keep the tofu from soaking up too much broth (which can be a problem with some miso), it made for great entertainment. A little show to go with the meal, you might say.
As I found out, clever presentation coupled with creative applications of traditional Japanese cooking methods is standard operating procedure at Nara. Named for the original capital of Japan, the restaurant presents an intriguing East-meets-West collaboration that's known on the West Coast, where it's blossomed, as fusion Japanese. The main dining room is small and blue-carpeted; the more traditional Japanese elements of the decor hover on the perimeter, with a faux bonsai and cherry tree garden on one side that reflects into a dark mirror on the other. A low archway leads into the tiny sushi bar, where a refrigerated glass case holds a rainbow of fresh fish. The other walls are decorated with artwork that a small placard labels "studies of 16th- and 17th-century paintings" -- European paintings, that is. The layout gives the feel of an upscale American restaurant accented with a few Japanese touches. The menu reverses this, giving standard Japanese food and cooking techniques an American twist. Familiar Japanese terms abound -- teriyaki, tempura, katsu -- but they aren't always attached to typical Japanese foods. Katsu stuffed mushrooms? Tempura jalapenos? Teriyaki quail? These aren't combinations you're likely to find elsewhere in town. But are the innovations successful? The answer is a resounding yes.
The stuffed jalapeno tempura and katsu stuffed mushrooms both arrived filled with minced crabmeat. Each appetizer also had a dipping sauce: picante for the jalapeno, a sweet-and-sour sauce for the mushrooms. Though the flash-fried jalapeno might be considered a touch bland by the sort of diner who likes his peppers as hot as possible, the picante gives it all the kick it needs, while the cool crabmeat provides welcome relief for those without asbestos taste buds. The tempura batter is light, crisp, puffy and, best of all, grease free. Likewise, the katsu stuffed mushrooms are lightly breaded, letting the mushrooms take center stage. In fact, the unification of the crabmeat's faint sweetness and the richness of the mushrooms renders the attendant sweet-and-sour sauce unnecessary. Each bite stands well enough on its own.
A crab-asparagus soup featured a presentation similar to that of the miso shiru, arriving as a ring of crisp, diagonally sliced cross sections of asparagus surrounding lumps of fresh crabmeat. A bonus in this case was that the asparagus slices cooked slightly in the hot broth, producing a just-barely-steamed flavor.
Not quite as extraordinary, though still commendable, was the grilled quail teriyaki. This appetizer comprised two dainty glazed grilled quail served over a bed of dime-size slices of potato. The pungent sauce was just strong enough to add to the slightly gamy flavor of the quail without overpowering it; the sauce also added an interesting touch to the potato "chips". Unfortunately, there wasn't very much of the dish. Given the meager amount of meat on the tiny quail, it seemed like the birds were gone almost as soon as they had arrived.
No matter: Nara's entrees proved to be more than filling enough. Particularly impressive was the chicken tempura: an entire breast fried tempura style and covered in a fine mesh of julienne fried potatoes. Artsy splashes of a light green avocado sauce across the breast and cherry tomato halves studding the rim of the plate brought a splash of color to the dish that made it almost too pretty to eat. The hashed potatoes were light and fluffy, and the chicken itself was tender enough to surrender to a fork. Unlike much American fried chicken, the chicken tempura was neither greasy nor overly dry. The batter also clung to the breast without becoming sticky or soggy, and the light tracings of avocado sauce provided a welcomed and slightly tangy accent.
Nara's soba noodles also evidenced the kitchen's skill at frying. Pan-fried soba noodles with grilled shrimp teriyaki had a smooth, subtle flavor. Four grilled jumbo shrimp, basted in the same sweet teriyaki glaze as the quail, rested atop a bed of grayish-brown soba noodles that were cushioned by a layer of sweet, diced tomatoes. The fat shrimp left one of my companions hungering for more, though he was pacified somewhat by the copious amount of noodles, which took on a sweet, appealing tang from the teriyaki sauce.
Each entree arrived with a small side dish of tempura vegetables, fresh and tasty and fried just as exquisitely as the jalapeno. I only wish that the same could be said for the seafood tempura. It's not that the tempura was done badly; it's that the contents of the dish were disappointing. After enjoying the crab-asparagus soup, I was startled to discover that the crab in this dish was a "crab stick" instead of the real thing. Granted, it wasn't badly cooked, and the accompanying shrimp and scallops were fine, but I can only wonder how much better it would have been had the crab been true crab.
No complaints, however, can be levied toward the crowning glory of Nara's menu, the teriyaki filet mignon. This supple round of beef arrived swimming in a pool of heavy, rich, creamy sauce and drizzled with teriyaki glaze. One bite revealed that the kitchen had delivered the filet exactly as ordered, a butter-knife-tender medium rare. The combination of condiments also worked beautifully, the richness of the cream and teriyaki sauces blending with the juice of the filet into a level of taste that can only be described as steak heaven.
While it's the cooked dishes that set Nara apart, the sushi menu is also worth a look. Though not quite as expansive as those of some sushi bars around town, it's not sparse, and contains a few notable items. Among the nigiri sushi, the most pleasant surprise is that the kani, or crab, follows the pattern of Nara's soup rather than its tempura and is real rather than "crab stick" (which it often is at other sushi bars). Too, the ika, or squid, has an impressive turgidity that gives it a satisfying crunch -- testament to its freshness. For that matter, all the nigiri is extraordinarily fresh, from melt-in-the-mouth tender tai (red snapper) to a crispy fried crawfish nigiri topped with zesty scallion shoots. Not only is there a lot of freshness, there's also a lot of fish: Each piece overlapped the edges of its rice ball almost enough to drag onto the tray below. Gunkan-maki -- Japanese for "battleship rolls," a flat pad of rice encircled in a wall of seaweed, then filled with flying fish roe, salmon roe or smelt roe -- are also generously sized, full to bursting with cool, crunchy fish eggs.
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The handrolls, too, are well above par. I was particularly impressed with the spicy salmon handroll. This standby usually comes spiced to nuclear proportions, sometimes in order to disguise the taste of not-fresh-enough-for-nigiri salmon. But Nara's version was cool enough that I could enjoy the taste of both the seasonings and the fish, rather than having to scramble for my tea to douse the flames of an Atomic Fire Handroll. Nara's take on the familiar California roll is also a little different; instead of the usual crab stick, the crab in this case is minced into a paste, like the stuffing of the tempura jalapeno, and spread alongside the cucumber and avocado. I found it a little bit salty, though my dining companions had no complaints.
But that's a minor problem. The only major problem I have with Nara is the speed of the service. Granted, art takes time to create, but it's frustrating to have 15 minutes pass between placing an order for four cups of green tea -- which were, admittedly, replenished regularly during the meal itself -- and their arrival, especially on a fairly slow weeknight. An entire dinner -- sushi, appetizers, soup/salad and entrees -- lasted three hours. Given the quality of Nara's food, that wouldn't be a complaint if the entire time had been spent savoring the meal instead of waiting for the next course. Perhaps it's a case of good things coming to those who wait, but when it comes to food this good, I get impatient.
Nara, 11124 Westheimer, 266-2255.
Nara: miso soup, $3; crab-asparagus soup, $5; stuffed jalapeno tempura, $6; katsu stuffed mushrooms, $7; grilled quail teriyaki, $8; chicken tempura, $16; pan-fried soba with grilled shrimp teriyaki, $16; teriyaki filet mignon, $24.