When the server says that “everything” is her favorite item on the menu, you secretly roll your eyes and order one of the most mundane dishes to check for execution and delivery.
Yes, we ordered the calamari.
Score, it’s on the happy hour menu for $7, a buck less than its normal-hour pricing. A generous portion arrived on a plate lined with pieces of white butcher paper underneath to soak up the excess grease, accompanied by a dipping bowl of creamy cilantro sauce. The calamari exceeded my expectations; each and every piece, lightly battered and crispy, was fried just right. The meat of the squid can easily be overcooked and become rubbery; these morsels were skillfully finished.
I was delighted to continue the meal at Sozo Sushi & Lounge, with its wide-open, bright interior space and sleek, luminous sushi bar. A second bar is hidden around the corner, with only a few seats facing a white-lit wall lined with everything from a selection of fine Japanese whiskey to the complete range of flavored Ciroc vodkas. The other side of the restaurant opens up to a beautiful view of the city from the second floor of BLVD Place.
Next we ordered the spicy tuna roll and the pepper tuna salad, which were also on the happy hour menu. The spicy tuna tasted the way it would at any reputable sushi joint, mushy but not overly so, a quick, tingling spice and not fishy.
The pepper tuna salad was our least favorite venture of the evening. The sashimi was paper-thin, resembling a carpaccio preparation rather than sashimi. The curled-up wafers were drowned in mayo, spicy mayo and eel sauce. The six slivers surrounded a small mound of the greens used to make the side salad that accompanies an entrée or box. I scraped off all the sauce from a second piece in order to get to the fish itself, which, alas, tasted dry and old.
Single sushi pieces of nama sake (fresh salmon), unagi (freshwater eel), hotate (chopped scallop) and tomago (egg cake) arrived with a side of wasabi and pickled ginger. Freshly ground wasabi root is a luxury that only a few high-end sushi restaurants take the time to grate and prepare. Most places use a less-expensive version containing powdered horseradish rather than the real root, then add pale green coloring to imitate the wasabi. Real wasabi tends to be a naturally lighter shade of green with a grated texture, and will invoke a more herbal, slow-burning nasal sensation. Unfortunately, the former version appeared to be what was served at Sozo.
The sushi tasted fine; there was a hint of too much rice vinegar in the rice itself, but the fish tasted fresh.
One of my favorite Japanese dishes is the Nabeyaki udon. There are a couple of places in Houston that knock this out of the park, and now I can add Sozo to that short list. Nabeyaki is a soup served with thick tapioca noodles that are slippery and dense. The only homemade udon noodles I’ve ever experienced were in my auntie’s kitchen. Taking the store-bought bulk noodles out of the equation, a good nabeyaki begins with a deep, sweet, meaty broth in which are combined meat, seafood and vegetables.
The soup bowl arrived with shiitake mushrooms; baby spinach (baby bok choy is more traditional); narutomaki (fish cake); pieces of chicken breast, pork or beef; whole, tail-on shrimp; and a poached egg and was accompanied by shrimp tempura.
There is an art to eating nabeyaki. The egg is broken to release the yolk into the broth, shichimi togarashi (Japanese seven-spice blend) is sprinkled atop for texture and spice, and the shrimp tempura is either eaten separately or set directly in the broth to soften it.
Nabeyaki should always be presented in a cast-iron pot or bowl with a large, deep soup spoon for sipping broth. All the components of this nabeyaki were cooked well and the broth was delicious to the last drop.
The steak teriyaki was also a pleasant surprise. The rib eye was ordered and presented medium-rare, grill marks throughout, and a light drizzle of tangy teriyaki dressed the pre-sliced steak.
On a lunch visit, my guest and I shared the Negima, a grilled rib-eye roll stuffed with scallions and lightly drizzled with teriyaki sauce. The dish as a whole would be improved with more sauce. The tanginess of the teriyaki on the thinly sliced meat mingled with the spice of the scallions for a delicious pairing.
The curry rice don with pork katsu (breaded, fried pork cutlet) didn’t wow us, the curry overwhelming the pork. With lunch entrées, the same sautéed vegetable side arrived, this time with a breaded and fried disk composed of mashed potatoes, peas and carrots. It reminded us of middle-school cafeteria veggie sticks. They were good; I imagine that they are great choices for the kid’s menu.
This time the same server recommended something other than “everything.” One of the signature rolls, called the Cherry Blossom, was suggested because “it comes with lots of fresh fish and a lot of people like it,” she said.
The Cherry Blossom arrived on a clear glass plate, intricately decorated with cucumber skins shaped to resemble the spiky top of a pineapple. Each piece, wrapped in a thin slice of crisp, peeled cucumber, was stuffed with fresh tuna, salmon and yellowtail, avocado and jalapeño spears and was topped with micro-sprouts. A light sauce pooled underneath the roll. Normally, when hamachi (yellowtail) is presented fresh and raw, a fish sauce is incorporated into the sauce.
However beautiful it was, the roll did not hold together and its flavors, rather than blending, remained distinct from each other. Although it wasn’t my favorite, I can see how this would be a popular item with diners looking for a healthy, carb- and gluten-free alternative.
Reservations are recommended; the restaurant fills up quickly after 6 p.m. The happy hour menu is extensive and offers a variety of food items at slightly discounted cost. I ordered the lychee martini, a cocktail favorite at many Asian-inspired restaurants. Sozo’s version was delicious but nothing special.
My date opted to try the smokey old-fashioned from the specialty cocktail list. The Woodford Rye was modified with Mathilde peach liqueur and presented exquisitely in a smoke-filled whiskey bottle table-side. The drink was poured into a glass with regular ice cubes and a twist of orange peel. The charred-oak perfume of the smoke lingered for a few faint moments above the glass, but quickly dissipated in the lowball glass filled to the rim with ice. The drink was a tad bit sweet and watered down (by the loads of ice cubes), which is not the best way to serve the old-fashioned.
The dessert menu followed the traditional Japanese restaurant offerings, with choices of ice cream, mochi , and ice cream tempura. Our server exuberantly suggested the ice cream tempura.
It was vanilla ice cream inside a battered and deep-fried shell covered with once-upon-a-time frozen strawberries in a sweet, strawberry-flavored syrup.
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Aesthetically, Sozo is a serviceable destination for a date night when you’re determined to impress on the surface, but delving deeper won’t reveal much more about its soul and spirit. The floor-to-ceiling display of wine bottles separating the two large private dining rooms from the main area is elegant and refined. The view from the balcony patio is lovely. A few of the dishes were good, but a majority of the menu is what most would assume to be “tried and true” for cookie-cutter neighborhood sushi bars. It was as if the owner opened a template for a “sushi menu” and simply changed the title. With more than a dozen other restaurants under his belt, owner Bill Hou (Shogun Japanese Grill & Sushi Bar) might not have spent too much time making plans for the menu at Sozo. Ironically, the word means “creation” or “to imagine” in Japanese.
Diners will enjoy the extensive happy hour menu of food items. The patio will be a popular gathering place for Uptown/Galleria trendsetters to sip on lychee martinis while enjoying the gorgeous Houston weather (run while it’s still bearable outside). For something familiar, order the crispy calamari, but if there’s time to enjoy a nice bowl of noodle soup, the nabeyaki udon is highly recommended.
Sozo Sushi & Lounge
1700 Post Oak Boulevard, Suite 250, 832-659-0613 SozoSushiLounge.com.Monday ugh Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 11 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 10 p.m. Happy Hour: Mondays through Saturdays, 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. and Sundays, 4 p.m. to close .
Cherry blossom roll $14
Steak teriyaki $24
Nabeyaki udon $13
Curry rice udon (lunch) $12
Negima (lunch) $11
Nama sake (fresh salmon) $2
Unagi (freshwater eel) $2
Spicy tuna roll (happy hour) $5
Pepper tuna salad (happy hour) $9
Crispy calamari (happy hour) $7
Tamago (egg cake) $1.50
Hotate (chopped scallop) $2
Ice cream tempura $7
Lychee martini $8
Smokey old-fashioned $12