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Adventure and Trust: Umami Dinner #3 at Kata Robata

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Writing about event dinners can sometimes come across as a bit of a tease, i.e. "I ate all this awesome stuff that is never going to be served again and you didn't get to have it."

Fortunately, this isn't one of those types of articles.

The Umami dinners held at Kata Robata are a series, so this past Sunday's event was not just a one-off. It was actually the third so far.

This Umami dinner featured Randy Rucker and Chris Leung, formerly of Bootsie's, who are waiting for their new place, restaurant cōnat, to be finished. (The current estimate for opening will be in March 2012.) Host Chefs Manabu "Hori" Horiuchi and Mark Gabriel Medina prepared dishes as well and J.D. Woodward of *17 and Michael Castillo of Houston Country Club were on hand to assist.

I received a bit of a shock when I was informed that fugu was on the menu. "Fugu," which is Japanese for "river pig," means pufferfish. Pufferfish (also referred to as blowfish) is notorious because its skin and liver contain a neurotoxin, at least when found in the wild. (Farm-raised varieties don't get to ingest the bacteria that carry the precursors of the neurotoxin.)

Years ago, I had declared the purposeful ordering of pufferfish as just being kind of stupid. By all accounts, the flavor is just not that great, and hey, I have three kids to live for.

However, I have, on more than one occasion, had Chef Hori's omakase (in "omakase," the chef makes the selections; the word means "entrust"), and if there is anyone in Houston I'd trust to prepare it safely, it's him. Additionally, he is actually certified to prepare the fish safely.

So, I ate the fugu.

Rather boring, as it's an extremely mild white fish. The texture is nice and has a lovely firmness. I was much more interested in the delicious ponzu served on the side. I could have drunk the citrusy, salty sauce in a cup. I did indeed drink the clear soup that included a substantial amount of lemon. One of my tablemates and I joked that it was actually the antidote for the fugu.

"Extreme eating" out of the way, we were ready to continue on with more flavorful dishes. However, at this point it became apparent there was a timing problem. Dinner started at 6:30 pm. By 8 p.m., diners had received only the amuse bouche (delightful Kobe beef sashimi in a tart yuzu sauce with lotus roots and a crispy squid chip) and the fugu. By 8:15, the service timing started to smooth out and we continued at a perfect pace, but dinner did not end until 11 p.m. For us eight-to-five working stiffs, a late Sunday night is problematic.

However, it was obvious that the chefs and their staff were working their tails off for us. Hits of the evening included unbelievably tender yet firm braised daikon and pork belly lightly sitting in a shallow pool of clingy ankake sauce ("ankake" has this effect because it's a bit starchy) and topped with lobster powder, and a riceless "risotto" of finely diced celeriac, turnip and parsnips served with a quenelle of mullet roe the color of a sunset.

Before it came out, some skepticism was voiced by one of the fellow diners. "I've never had a riceless risotto that didn't make me want rice," he remarked. Skepticism turned to raves, as the mullet roe and the slightly creamy vegetables were first tasted separately, then mixed together. The vegetables benefited from the roe's saltiness, and by the time I was two-thirds done, I was unabashedly mixing the two together.

David Long Wong selected the pairings, and two were sakes that I loved: one served warm, called Koten Sharaku from the Fukushima Prefecture, and another served cold called Nambu Biin ("Southern Beauty") from the Iwate Prefecture.

Respected pastry chef Chris Leung worked his magic via the intermezzo and two desserts. The intermezzo was mild, frozen wintermelon, cleverly scraped into granita form and accented with white fungus and crispy, dehydrated red bean granules. The first dessert was a pomelo sorbet with mint, black sesame, maple and rum. The final dessert of the meal nearly blew me away with its small, masterful matcha tea meringues. An unnecessarily jarring cumin granola detracted somewhat from the experience, but it was an otherwise stunning dessert.

An event dinner of this magnitude should expand one's horizons, create an adventure and inspire contemplation. This dinner did all of that, and it was worth every dime to me.

The next Umami dinner is at Kata Robata on December 18. The cost will be $225 per person, and is promised to feature pufferfish, "live uni," and special sakes flown in from Japan. Call the restaurant at 713-526-8858 to make reservations.

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