It was a rainy, humid, otherwise uneventful night, and glitzy California import Katsuya by Starck was having its soft opening. Only, there was nothing soft about it. Not the loud shouts of "Irrashaimase!" when you entered the main dining room, not the sexily lit bar with beautiful people milling about in stiletto heels and revealing dresses, nor the larger-than-life light box panels where impossibly large photos of glistening, bright red lips and kohl-lined geisha eyes stared back at you.
Stepping into Katsuya's doors, the ultra-hip scene felt so stylish and sexy that I felt like I was somewhere in Hollywood or Miami. In fact, if someone had told me that we'd stepped onto the set of a Nip/Tuck episode, I would have believed it. The black-clad hostesses were tall and model-like. The manager wore a sharp suit and had a wired earpiece, Secret-Service style. The music was rhythmic, club-like. The lighting was dim, yet everything glowed. And in true Starck fashion, the decor was strikingly bold.
The "Liquid Kitchen" was turning out cocktails with expert precision. Mine were so delicious that I indulged in three different ones (a lot for me), and I thoroughly enjoyed each.
I started out with The Burning Mandarin, made with mandarin vodka, hand-crushed serrano chili, fresh lemon, orange juice and cranberry. It had just enough chili to leave a pleasant tingle on the lips, and I finished it quickly, chasing that tingle. The Berry Evocative, with Bacardi rum, hand-crushed strawberries, lime and soda, was also smooth and refreshing, but my favorite of the night was the perfectly proportioned Bellini, a fizzy drink made of Italian Prosecco and white peach puree, and garnished a sprig of thyme.
From the sushi kitchen, we sampled Katsuya's famous crispy rice with spicy tuna, and although it could've been a bit more perfect presentation-wise (the bulbs of tuna were not uniformly shaped, and the jalapenos seemed a bit haphazardly placed), the taste was spot-on, the crispy rice a bit smoky, the tuna topped with chili complementing the rice well.
Although the signature dish shined, some of the other fish dishes fell flat. The seared tuna with salsa -- one of the new specialty creations for the Houston menu, was just okay. The salsa, tuna and avocado conspired to give the dish a slightly mushy texture, and though the flavors weren't unpleasant, I felt like it needed more texture or spiciness, something to make the dish pop. Likewise, a seared albacore with garlic lemon butter sounded good on the menu but ended up being texturally too mushy and unpalatable.
The hot items and robata items turned out to be the stars of the night. The sizzling plate of Kobe Tobanyaki with wild mushrooms were hearty, substantial and delicious, a must-order for that sizzling wild factor.
I also enjoyed everything from the robata grill, with the standouts being the king crab legs, which were smoky and sweet, and the playful suki yaki maki, two rolls of beef nestled next to a poached egg floating in sukiyaki broth. We were instructed to break the egg and dip the beef into it. The egg wasn't great to dip in (you had to scoop up the egg with a spoon), but the flavors of the sukiyaki combined with the egg were a wonderful combination. A grilled mochi (sticky rice cake) and bacon-wrapped cherry tomato were quite nice as well.
Ironically, while Katsuya is probably most well known for its sushi, the fish dishes took a back seat that night to the drinks from the "Liquid Kitchen" and the food from the robata and hot kitchen.
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My theory on why this happened is this: Everyone was ordering the sushi and cold fish items, so the chefs in the other kitchens had plenty of time to do their thing. As a result, everything that came out from the robata and hot kitchen was spot-on, while we had hits and misses from the sushi kitchen because they were so rushed. Again, it must be noted that I attended a soft opening, so the restaurant was not quite at 100 percent yet.
In the end, even with the slight misses, I couldn't help but be impressed. With its ultra-luxe, otherworldly, over-the-top decor, Katsuya is a great place to have girls' night, guys' night, a hot date or an after-dinner drink, or just to plain people-watch. Just remember to look your best before you go, because chances are, if you're checking someone else out, they're checking you out, too.