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The Hamachi on Pluto

What's really special at Masa: The new-style sashimi.
Troy Fields

At Masa Sushi near the Johnson Space Center, I considered six slices of yellowtail that had been lightly seared and topped with a little bit of fresh jalapeño. The sashimi sat in a pool of yuzu citrus juice and soy sauce on a strikingly modern white plate. It all looked very familiar.

I folded a slice in half with my chopsticks so as not to lose any of the chile peppers, then popped it in my mouth. First I tasted the salty soy and the sour yuzu (an Asian citrus fruit), and then the buttery hamachi, which began to dissolve with little encouragement from my molars. The jalapeño added crunch and pepper flavor, but surprisingly, I didn't detect any heat.

Masa's Texas jalapeño yellowtail is a spectacular "new style" sashimi presentation. I could eat about ten orders of the stuff. When we put the empty plate aside, Michael Zhou, the head sushi chef and owner, asked us how we liked it.

"Better than Nobu's," I told him. He blinked at me for a second in disbelief.

"You have been to Nobu?" he asked incredulously.

"Yeah, the one in Dallas," I said.

"There's one in Dallas? I have to go," he said. And then he whispered, "I learned this dish from Nobu." As it dawned on him that he seemed to be claiming to be Nobu's apprentice, he corrected himself. Actually, he'd copied the dish from one of Nobu's cookbooks, he told us.

This is no surprise. After all, Nobu Matsuhisa is one of the most influential and imitated sushi chefs in the world. He popularized the whole concept of new-style sashimi, in which slices of raw fish are flash-cooked and served with sauce and condiments. And jalapeño yellowtail is probably the most famous of the lot.

I love new-style sashimi, and I'm glad to see it on Houston sushi bar menus. And I wasn't kidding when I said I liked Chef Michael's version better. Nobu gets $18 for yellowtail with jalapeños. Mike charges only $11.95.

Sure, Chef Michael is borrowing other people's ideas -- what do you expect from a Clear Lake restaurant called Masa Sushi? I've never been to the famous Masa Sushi in New York, which is considered by many to be the best sushi restaurant in the country. But I know that master sushi chef Masa Takayama charges a straight fee of $300 per person for the chef's omakase lunch or dinner, and that a reservation for the 26-seat restaurant must be made weeks, if not months, in advance.

You can pop into Masa Sushi on NASA Parkway without a reservation seven days a week, although the restaurant was crowded on the Friday night of our first visit. There was a half-hour wait for a table, but there were places available at the sushi bar. So three of us sat at the three stools closest to the sushi chef.

"Those are the best seats in the house," a woman eating from a bento box a few stools away told us. "You can see everything he's doing."

One of my dining companions quizzed her about her bento box dinner. The ornate lacquered box, which is divided into compartments, often serves as both a plate and a carrying case for Japanese lunches. But at Masa Sushi, the shiny box is also used for combination dinners.

Lunch boxes come with a salad, steamed rice and your choice of entrée. The dinner combination comes with a salad, steamed rice and tempura shrimp on a skewer. With this you can get your choice of four entrées: chicken teriyaki, chicken katsu, pork katsu, or sushi and sashimi selections. (Katsu, or East-West sauce, may sound exotic, but don't be too impressed; it's made with ketchup, mustard and Worcestershire sauce.)

But there isn't much point in sitting at a sushi bar and ordering tempura, so we tried to stick with sushi. Chef Michael prepared an order of giant clam sashimi by slicing tiny fingers along the edge of a thin slice. To serve it, he threw the piece of clam violently against the serving plate. When he did, the little fingers curled up and waved at us.

"It's alive!" one of my companions gasped.

"No, it's just the nerves," Michael said, leaned over to reassure her. "But it is very fresh." The clam sashimi was sweet and chewy, with a wonderful flavor. My dining companions had become addicted to the citrus-soy sauce served with the jalapeño yellowtail. They dipped their clam in the leftover sauce at the bottom of the dish.

We were all fond of the skydiver roll, which featured a crispy-cooked soft-shell crab rolled up with avocado, onion and cucumber and topped with strips of marinated and broiled freshwater eel. The Cajun roll, with fried oysters and avocado topped with a crawfish cream sauce that resembled étouffée, wasn't very Japanese, but it did taste good.

 

Most of the other sushi-roll creations on the menu sounded pedestrian. There were quite a few with vegetables, baked fish and smoked fish. And for those who don't trust even smoked fish, the cream-cheesy Philadelphia roll here is made with baked smoked salmon.

But as for the seating, the woman with the bento box was right. From my perch overlooking the chef's left shoulder, I really could see everything he did. And it was quite a show. Chef Michael has several outlandish creations in his repertoire.

For some reason, his beef sashimi presentation reminded me of a Salvador Dalí painting. Maybe it was the weird martini glass with the offset stem that he used to hold the dipping sauce. Or maybe it was because the paper-thin slices of nearly raw beef hanging from the lip of the glass took the shape of Dalí's melting clocks. It looked wacky, but it made my mouth water.

The surreal beef sashimi and the jalapeño yellowtail are two of the seven new-style sashimi items on Masa's menu, which can be found under the heading of "Sashimi Specialties." We tried another dish from this list called new-style flounder sashimi.

The flounder was fresh, silky and absolutely delightful, and the yuzu-soy sauce was quite good as usual. But the topping of minced ginger and raw garlic left a harsh aftertaste in the back of my mouth. My dining companions and I disagreed about this dish. They loved it, pointing out that the seasonings weren't any more assertive than those found in several Thai dishes I've raved about in the past.

It's true. I love fiery food. And in fact, I raved about the Thai sushi chef at Blue Fish and his spicy sushi rolls. So why the double standard? Why would I suddenly take offense to a little raw garlic on my flounder?

When I left, I said a formal good-bye and thank-you to Chef Michael in my only words of Japanese. He didn't give me the usual formal Japanese reply. In fact, he looked at me like I was nuts.


Chef Michael is Chinese, a waiter told me on my second visit to Masa Sushi. One of my dining companions had arrived early and sat at the sushi bar talking with Chef Michael for a while. He reported that Michael used to own Mikado Sushi on Woodway. He sold out after the landlord announced a large rent increase and moved down here.

The restaurant, which is located at the rear of a shopping center, has a beautiful interior with pale wood furniture, muted green walls and subtle bamboo patterns in the Formica and the wallpaper. Four pillars made from natural tree trunks line the walkway to the restrooms.

On this visit, I tried some simple sushi items like tuna, unagi, yellowtail and sea clam, and I found all of them to be adequate but lacking that glistening freshness of superior sushi. One of my dining companions got the tiger's eye roll with smoked salmon, smelt roe, cream cheese and jalapeño, which was fairly boring, in my opinion.

The other ordered a grasshopper roll. According to the menu, the grasshopper roll is stuffed with several varieties of raw fish, along with crabmeat and vegetables. But when it arrived, we noticed that the "crabmeat" was surimi gaudily tinted with red food coloring. Many Houston sushi restaurants advertise "crab" and serve "krab," but it's still a fraud. We sent the grasshopper roll back.

I was determined to try some more of Chef Michael's new-style sashimi creations. Our first visit had convinced me this tiny section of Masa Sushi's extensive menu was the most interesting thing the restaurant had going on.

The wildest-sounding item on the new-style sashimi menu is something called "Oh! Ya! Crazy Sashimi." In this dish, slices of slightly seared white tuna were wrapped up around a filling of crunchy pickled onions and daikon slivers and topped with what looked like chopped cucumbers with minced ginger and garlic. The sashimi enchiladas were sitting in a pool of the same sauce of citrus, soy and oil.

This dish was spectacular. Maybe there wasn't as much raw garlic on this one, or maybe all that pickled onion and radish offset the spices, but for some reason the raw garlic here worked great. I was beginning to think that maybe I'd been just too critical of the flounder.

Then we got the black pepper tuna sashimi. The tuna had been lightly seared and coated on the outside with black pepper. It was then sliced thin and draped over a martini glass filled with dipping sauce, just like the sashimi beef. The bright red tuna coated with pepper along the edge looked exactly like slices of peppered pastrami in a New York deli. The first bite tasted pretty good. And then the pepper took over. There was so much black pepper on each slice of tuna that I couldn't taste anything else.

 

That's when I decided that I wasn't crazy after all. Much of the new-style sashimi at Masa Sushi is sensational. But sometimes the innovations are taken a little too far. You can embellish raw fish only so much before the sauces and condiments overwhelm the flavor of the fish.

We finished our second visit with another order of Texas jalapeño yellowtail. I had to see if it was really as good as I remembered. And it was.

Most of the menu at Masa Sushi is designed to appeal to mainstream tastes. But Chef Michael deserves a lot of credit for bringing some cutting-edge innovations to serious sushi fans in the NASA neighborhood. Granted, not all of his experiments work. But when he gets the combination of raw fish and spicy condiments just right, his new-style sashimi takes off like a rocket.

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Masa Sushi

977 NASA Parkway
Houston, TX 77058

281-486-9888

www.masasushitexas.com


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