Sushi Safari

A confession: Over the last decade, while people nationwide were learning about sushi, going gaga over urchin roe and ebi and maguro and awabi, I was lagging behind, wondering how anyone could even consider putting raw fish between their lips. Perhaps it was my dual Boston/Houston background, but it seemed wrong, wrong, wrong to eat seafood that wasn't broiled, baked or fried. Discussions of the sinus-clearing properties of wasabi, the Japanese horseradish that sat like a green lump on the plate to be mixed with the soy sauce into which the sushi was dipped, were meaningless to me. Arguments over whether green tea or Kirin beer was the proper drink to wash down a tekka-maki passed over my head or, rather, outside my interest. When I entered a Japanese restaurant, I turned my attention to the tempura listings. Other people could wrestle with whether they wanted to risk their lives by going for the ultimate sushi, the potentially poisonous blowfish. I'd take the chicken teriyaki, thank you very much.

That stance served me well until recently, when it seemed that every street I drove down was sprouting a new sushi restaurant. It may have been that I simply started noticing what was there, or it may have been a reaction to a real spurt of sushi (so to speak). Friends who pay closer attention to the raw fish market than I do indicated that the latter was the case. After years in which a handful of dependable sushi joints had ruled, a number of newcomers, and expansions of old favorites, had joined in the battle for the sushi consumer. They were happy about this. The more, they felt, the merrier.

As for me, the expansion meant I could stay ignorant no longer. I figured it was time to overcome provincialism. So I set out to see what I had missed. With friends in tow, I hit a quintet of Houston sushi emporiums. And what did I find? Not just that my longtime concerns had been exaggerated, but that in many cases Americanization had all but eliminated the exotic quality that first attracted people to the food (even as it drove me away). Actually, crossing the sushi line was so easy that I was almost disappointed -- almost.

One of the first places I ventured into was Back Door Sushi, a new Japanese-cuisine addition to Hunan River, a long-established Chinese eatery in the River Oaks Shopping Center. Located literally at the restaurant's back door, the annex is a tiny space that reflects sushi's origins in space-starved Japan. At Back Door there are only four small tables, and the service can be truly amnesiac. Knowledgeable guests prefer places at the brightly lighted bar, which showcases the seafood ingredients and is presided over by three smiling, knife-wielding sushi chefs, none of whom, on one recent visit, seemed familiar enough with English to explain to a neophyte which cuts of fish were which. Fortunately, on a small table to the right of the entrance there was a full-color takeout menu the size of a small poster that featured photos of many of the offerings, listing major ingredients along with prices, which range from $2 for six poker-chip-size slices of kappa-maki (cucumber roll) to $8.95 for a combination of five traditional sushi pieces and six quarter-size slabs of California roll (cucumber, avocado, crab).

For me, the kappa-maki and California roll were a way to ease into more serious sushi. I was amazed to find out that though made of seaweed, the nori (the black-green paper-like sushi wrap) tasted not at all fishy. In Back Door's California rolls it had a pleasantly crisp texture that complemented the crunchy-fresh threads of vegetables, the delicate taste of the crab and the tasty short-grain rice known as shari that, prepared with rice vinegar, sugar and salt, then quickly cooled to create a chewiness and glossy sheen, acts as the foundation on which sushi is built.

Though connoisseurs might find it too Americanized, I was also taken by the sushi at Cafe Japon's new branch on Westheimer. The menu deliberately sets out to make sushi more American palate-friendly. To this end, Cafe Japon offers a number of house-special rolls ($5.25 to $6.50/$1.25 at happy hour) made either with vegetables such as cold baby asparagus spears or with cooked seafood such as shrimp or crab. The restaurant also features Texas-style versions of maki, a.k.a. sushi rolls, such as the ceviche and Cajun hand rolls ($2.50 each). For the latter, the shari rice hid crispy, tempura-battered fried oysters, crunchy shoestrings of cucumber and smooth narrow slices of avocado. And, as a lagniappe, the contents were topped off with a spiky splash of peppery Louisiana-style sauce. No doubt this concoction wouldn't pass muster in Tokyo, but it tasted pretty good to me. So did the ceviche hand roll, with its marinated whitefish and the homey, familiar flavors of ripe tomato and fresh cilantro.

At the Japon on Times Boulevard, which is owned by the same family of Hong Kong emigrants who own Cafe Japon, the atmosphere is much closer to what I imagine the atmosphere in a sushi restaurant in Japan would be like. This tiny, dark, low-ceilinged room centers on a no-frills sushi bar; there's minimal table service available. There are, though, display placards for the sushi ignorant, courtesy of a Japanese beer company. And the sushi hand roll menu (all items $2.50 each) tries to attract non-sushi fans with such improbable offerings as the Ninja Turtle hand roll, which features bland but chewy baked mussel and intensely orange salted capelin roe; the torpedo hand roll, with a center of spicy baked scallops and bits of onion; and the surprisingly tasty Houston hand roll, which combines the rich, vaguely salty flavor of yellowtail with the savory zest of green onion and a smoothing skim of sesame-ish sushi mayonnaise. Japon's house-special rolls also include such concessions as the vegetable roll ($4.50), which comes in four half-dollar-size pieces that contain tiny cubes of avocado and mushroom as well as thready bits of carrot, white radish and cucumber. They're not just lovely to eat, they're lovely to look at.

So is the sushi at Nippon, which is presented in classically beautiful black lacquered obento boxes. The Japanese country inn exterior of this museum district restaurant conceals a restful mauve and black space that emphasizes table service. The compact sushi bar itself angles off from the small main dining room; the ubiquitous point-and-pick sushi card stands next to the sugar on each table, but when I was there the selection at Nippon was more limited than what I'd found elsewhere. A number of the items depicted were unavailable, but of those that were, the best of the bunch was ebi ($2.50/$1.25 at happy hour), butterflied boiled shrimp atop a cartouche of nicely vinegary, sticky shari rice bound together with a narrow band of nori. This was more than enough seaweed wrapper, since when used in the larger quantity necessary to contain a California roll ($3.50) it was so tough and chewy -- to say nothing of tasting rather like low tide -- that I was unable to finish the piece. That was too bad, since the other ingredients were just fine.

Fortunately, a stop at Kaneyama in southwest Houston restored my budding interest in sushi experimentation. The strip center location didn't look promising, but the spacious blond-wood interior, with its tatami rooms partitioned off by rice-paper shoji screens from the techno-splendid expanse of the chrome and pink neon sushi bar, was inviting. The three busy chefs had all they could do to keep up with the lunchtime requests of the almost entirely Japanese-speaking crowd at the counter and orders taken by the waitstaff from mixed groups of Japanese and American business types. Here, I decided to stop going halfway with sushi, to stop focusing on the American-friendly offerings and bit into some ika, i.e. uncooked squid ($3.50/$1 happy hour). The seafood arrived as decorative as a doily atop its little loaf of rice, and while the texture was very chewy, the taste was delicate and almost sweet.

Emboldened, I took the waiter's advice and ordered what Kaneyama calls a Houston roll. The hand roll ($3.75/$2.25) contains bits of avocado and a wisp of salty, neon-orange masago -- smelt eggs. But there was something much more surprising at the center: little strips of brick-red tuna, orange salmon and buff yellowtail. They were exquisitely fresh and meltingly tender. It was fish, it was raw, it was good. I was converted.

Back Door Sushi, 2015 West Gray, 527-8830; Cafe Japon, 11312 Westheimer, (281) 531-9100; Japon, 2444 Times Boulevard, 526-2100; Nippon, 4464 Montrose, 523-3939; Kaneyama, 9527 Westheimer, 784-5168.

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