What's not to like about Nabi? I asked myself as I looked around the empty dining room on a Thursday night before the holidays. The answer is simple: There's a lot to like about Nabi, the new restaurant that replaced sushi stalwart Tomo on the Lower Westheimer curve. But the neighbors might not realize it yet.
Although I always seem to raise hackles when I say it, the truth is that Tomo was never any good. Despite this, the sushi joint did a fairly steady business. So I can't quite figure out why -- now that there's actually a good restaurant in its spot -- that same business has dried up.
Tomo-lovers, come back. Nabi serves sushi, too!
But it's not the sushi that had my friend and I raving back and forth across our booth that Thursday night. While a solid effort, the sushi took a backseat to Nabi's red chile-spiced edamame, Korean-style fried chicken and soft pork bao as well as its sake-based cocktails -- all of which is incredibly inexpensive during the restaurant's daily happy hour.
It gets even cheaper on service industry nights, Mondays, when you can treat yourself to specials like a bowl of ramen and a bottle of Kirin for $6. While we didn't get a chance to try the ramen that night, if the fried chicken and bao are any indication, it's solid fare too.
The dining room has been revamped since the Tomo days, too, making it a brighter and friendlier-looking spot overall. A chalkboard wall near the register reminds me of the one that lists the daily specials at The Burger Guys, while the wooden booths are sprawling and comfortable. It's the kind of place where you feel encouraged to stay and linger. This feeling is encouraged along by the friendly waitresses, who were excellent about allowing us to get a few more orders of food in right on the cusp of happy hour's end.
Chef Ji Kang's wonderfully crispy Korean-style fried chicken had a snappy bite that reminded me of a pleasant cross between the spicy-as-all-hell chicken at Toreore and the enormous drumsticks served across the street at The Rice Box food truck during the day.
And the red chile oil-rubbed edamame we ordered as an appetizer had that sharp zing of the same Sichuan cuisine that Mala Sichuan is turning out in Chinatown. I loved seeing this hybridization -- borrowing elements from various Asian cuisines -- and how unforced and natural it seemed in context. My friend Judy and I ate every last soybean from the chile-laced pods, licking our fingers contentedly as we went.
And the menu only continued to hum from there: wonton-shelled "tacos" with raw tuna and pine nuts in a fine, spicy wasabi sauce (which, yes, also reminded me of food truck fare: The Modular used to serve equally excellent "tacos" almost exactly like this), pan-fried dumplings with finely griddled bottoms, sushi rolls that were gleefully Americanized and strewn with "crunch" toppings and messy handfuls of orange roe.
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Judy and I occupied our booth for a few solid hours, switching to cloudy nigorizake after the cocktail specials had ended. Even after happy hour was over, we wanted to stay and eat more and more and more. Nabi could be dangerous this way.
If that's your bag, the restaurant does all-you-can-eat specials on Sunday for $16 in addition to their Monday night ramen-and-booze fests. Honestly, I can't decide which one of those nights I want to tackle first.