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First Look at Dosi, A Korean Small-Plates Restaurant and Soju Bar

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It would be tempting to visit Dosi just for Korean fried chicken. The tempura-battered free range chicken comes to the table tantalizingly stacked in a mound of tasty, bright orange, spicy-sweet gochugang (Korean red pepper) glaze, without a doubt the best version you can find in Houston at the moment.

But Dosi, the new Korean small plates concept on Shepherd just south of Westheimer, is about so much more than just fried chicken. If the sleek concrete facade doesn't do the job of cluing you into what the place is all about, the colorful wall of liquid-filled jars that greet you at the entrance might give you a hint.

Each color -- red, yellow and green being the primary colors that catch the eye -- represents a type of soju infusion. Yes, soju-- a Korean version of vodka made from rice or sweet potato. The white distilled beverage is the preferred drink in Korea, and Dosi, in addition to being a restaurant, plans to be the place for people to gather and drink soju. To facilitate this objective, Dosi is designed around a communal space.

When you enter the main dining room, your eyes can't help but be drawn to the impossibly long community table, which runs the length of the room from the bar to the kitchen. It's really well done, too, the setup inviting as opposed to intimidating. The communal table is raised higher (the same height as a bar), its width not too wide or narrow, allowing for easy conversation between people seated across from each other. The bar chairs are plush and cushioned, comfortable enough to relax in, and spaced in such a way that is not too cramped, yet close enough to for people -- strangers or friends -- to engage with one another.

If the ambiance is inviting, so, too, is the food. The menu, conceived of by owner An Vo, was created by executive chef Jordan Asher. Asher, whose resume includes stints at Oxheart and Ibiza, has traveled extensively, working in places such as Mercat a la Planxa in Chicago and Spice Market in New York City, but hitherto did not have experience with Korean food. Perhaps that's what gives the menu at Dosi its newness, its of-the-moment feeling. The dishes are creative, the presentation impeccable, and food, though not 100 percent authentic Korean, is flavorful and memorable, the kind you want to revisit.

Where some restaurants that try to do "small plates" end up getting it wrong (either with plates that are too big, prices that are too high, or dishes that are difficult to eat and not meant for sharing at all), Dosi does it right. The Banchan, or Korean side dishes, are small and well priced in the $4 to $7 range, with most dishes coming in at $5. Of these, the kale chips were super fun --green colored, bubbly chips that resembled shrimp chips or crispy chicharron - but made of kale with a yogurt dipping sauce. Also notable was the tomato salad, a mixture of cherry tomatoes with grilled tofu and crisped rice flavored with a savory seasoning that was a bit more Thai and Vietnamese in style, but really delicious. Another standout was the wagyu beef jerky -- four long strips of thinly pounded dry meat topped with cilantro and sorrel -- cut neat and clean and easy to pick up with your fingers.

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For the larger shared plates (priced from $8 to $22 but mostly falling in the $10-12 range), a scallion pancake was beautifully presented, a large round pancake pre-sliced into long strips that you could roll up with your chopsticks and eat. It was bit on the salty side, no doubt because of the anchovy in each bite, but if you ate it with some kimchi, the fermented crunch and tang of the cabbage did a good job of cutting through the saltiness.

A shrimp and porridge -- a riff on Southern shrimp and grits -- was fantastic, though. Here, the creaminess of the rice porridge got a bright kick of melted shallot and white kimchee, the melange of flavors well balanced and very enjoyable.

We also got a gorgeous Black Hill Ranch pork belly, charred on the outside, and sitting in a pool of sour plum juice. The flavors were spot on, but our cut of pork belly was unfortunately 80 to 90 percent fat in composition, and we couldn't eat more than two pieces. If you order this, ask for as lean a cut as possible.

Now, back to that fried chicken. The plate fell under the "Family Style" header, and you can also get a garlic and black pepper version, but the sweet and spicy is the way to go. Tangy and yet sweet sweet and sour, with just enough spice to make things interesting, it is served with a mild, sweet-pickled Korean radish. The chicken itself is satisfyingly hot and crisp and slightly gooey, a total winner. Even better was the fact that we couldn't eat it all, had leftovers the next morning, and that it still tasted great eaten as a cold breakfast.

To end the meal, we had one of the most creative desserts you'll find in Houston right now. Forget creme brulee or chocolate cake, which is so yesterday. The frozen goat's milk, a creative take on Taiwanese shaved ice topped with dehydrated strawberries, a sweetened granola-type mix, goat yogurt and vanilla bean sauce, and a dollop of whipped cream with sea salt, was creamy and fresh, the cold ice igniting the palate despite being only mildly sweet.

Throughout the meal, we sipped on drinks of infused soju (you can order a flight of four sample flavors) as well as creative soju cocktails (the Melondipity, with infused mint soju, watermelon and lime was refreshing).

Too often, you visit a restaurant and leave with a "meh" impression. Dosi is not one of those places. The ambiance is modern and inviting. Its location is central and easy to find. And best of all, it's not derivative. It's not a Korean restaurant like you'd find in Korea town by any means, but the food is modern and creative, with enough bells and whistles that you'll be wanting to come back for more, and soon.

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