Chef Chat, Part 3: Chris Nemoto of Zushi Practices the Art of Sushi

Chris Nemoto Zushi Japanese Cuisine 5900 Memorial Drive 713-861-5588 www.zushihouston.com

This is part three of my chef chat with Chef Chris Nemoto. Part 1 and Part 2 ran in this same space over the last couple of days.

"I always felt like [my sushi master] was giving me knowledge that, when people learn in Japan, it's a skill, it's trade, it's precious, and I didn't want it to go to waste." - Chris Nemoto

I wish I could capture the complete sincerity and earnestness with which these words were delivered, because they pretty much sum up what Chris Nemoto, the subject of this week's Chef Chat, is all about.

He has a respect for his profession. He honors his trade. He cherishes his skills. And it shines through in his food, which we taste today.

For our tasting, we started with what for me was like a Japanese-style ceviche, beautifully presented in a martini glass, and garnished with an orchid. To make the "sashimi cocktail," Nemoto created small baby skewers of New Zealand snapper wrapped around Granny Smith apple, octopus, and mango. In the glass, a citrus-y, fragrant, fizzy cocktail made of sparkling sake, orange, yuzu, red onion and Japanese mint leaf could be sipped or used just as a dipping sauce.

Taking a bite from each skewer, the different textures and flavors came into play -- sweet mango, slightly chewy octopus, crispy, tart apple, delicate but firm snapper -- to delicious effect. Sipping the sweet, alcoholic, carbonated fizz after each bite of the crispy fish-fruit combo was thoroughly enjoyable as well.

Next up was his konbujime salmon, a salmon belly seared with the skin on, and then cured in a Japanese marinade of konbu and soy. Topped with rice pearls and red pickled onion, the fish was slick and moist, and full of the oceanic flavors of the konbu, or seaweed. The marinade brought out the natural flavor of the salmon, which was counterbalanced by the acidity in the pickled onion, while small crispy rice pearls kept things interesting.

A playful trio of omakase-style fish preparations was served next, elegantly plated on black slate and garnished with a bright-fuschia orchid.

The first was hamachi belly, which had been wrapped around some shari, or sushi rice, topped with translucent green wasabi flying fish eggs, and tied with a chive in the same style as an obi, or belt. It was too big for me to eat whole, so I took a bite. The flying fish eggs spread like little pellets of wasabi-flavored goodness, adding an element of surprise to what would normally be a traditional hamachi belly nigiri.

Salmon belly with habanero miso paste and pickled fennel with yuzu vinaigrette had a little bit of spicy, almost peppery tartness to it that worked.

Of the three items, the seared hamachi belly sashimi took home the grand prize. I took a bite and immediately wished I had another. The seared belly had a bit of smokiness that was accented by coarsely ground pepper. The wasabi and yuzu dressing with ume plum paste hit the perfect notes in terms of flavor balance, and the yuzu flying fish eggs added that textural complexity to take it next level.

The final dish was as fun as it was complex. At the outset, it looked almost like a Vietnamese spring roll, but there was so much more that went into it. The wrapper was made of paper-thin cucumber sheets. Inside the roll, there were strawberry slices, avocado, tempura shrimp, and unagi, or freshwater eel. If it sounds a bit weird, it also tasted a bit unusual, particularly the strawberry flavor against the cucumber. It wasn't unpleasant, just different.

I quite enjoyed the textures of crispy tempura against the eel, and crispy cucumber against the strawberry, but though I appreciate the creativity, I think there was a bit too much going on in this roll. Presentation-wise, Nemoto scored points for plating the roll on a top of a sloped, curved fried fish tail, lined up in such a way that the curved tips of the toothpicks were pointing just-so in the same direction, with a mirroring array of sliced cucumbers for garnish.

Chris Nemoto impressed me as chef who is committed to practicing the art of sushi. I use the word "practice" because he still works on the line -- he's still creating, learning, improving, experimenting. I use the word "art" because he expresses himself artistically through his food and is capable of creating beautifully plated dishes that are meant to be savored by sight just as much as by taste. Nemoto is the real deal, and I'm looking forward to going back to Zushi just so I can sit at the bar and tell the chef: "Just make me whatever."

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