First Look at Nara by Donald Chang

Nara. There's something so inherently sensual about the way in the which the name rolls off the tongue. Spoken with a Japanese intonation, the "r" sound takes on the form of a soft "d," so that that it sounds like a secretive whisper of some sort: "Nah-dhah."

My first time there, I admit I didn't know what to expect. That's what happens when a restaurant tries to do something new, and in this respect, Nara is definitely ahead of the curve by Houston standards. It doesn't matter that Korean food has become so popularized in Los Angeles by the Kogi BBQ truck, that words like bulgogi (marinated beef ribeye) or kalbi (marinated short rib) are spoken about with as much familiarity as, say, pepperoni or fajitas. For someone in Houston to attempt a modern Korean restaurant is pretty daring.

That someone would be chef and restauranteur Donald Chang. You'll no doubt see him walking the floor if you visit Nara. Tall, personable, and easy-going, Chang is known about town as the chef behind Uptown Sushi and a previous incarnation of Nara on Westheimer. Approximately six years ago, he took some personal time away from the food world to refresh, relax and start a family. Now that he's back, he's full of new ideas.

A trained sushi chef, Chang is Korean by ethnicity. Though he didn't get trained in Korean cooking, it's in his blood, the food of his soul. "I wanted to take the Korean food that you can get in the Korean part of town, utilize good, quality ingredients, and offer it in a place with nice ambiance. We're using Texas T Kobe beef for our meats, and we're sourcing the highest quality fish for our sushi bar -- from the same purveyors that are supplying Uchi, Kata Robata, and MF Sushi," he says.

The result is a menu that will look a lot like the ones you'll find in a typical Korean restaurant. Only, this is the modern, small plates version, with higher quality, luxe ingredients. The idea is to order a whole bunch of plates and share them, kind of like Korean tapas.

There's a beautiful beef tartare you won't want to miss. A very typical dish at Korean restaurants, Chang's version is done with course, hand-chopped Texas T Kobe beef, then topped with a quail egg, and a fresh uni (sea urchin). I broke the quail yoke to mix into the tartare. The meat was cold, with an almost silky quality, the fat content of the meat enhanced by the creamy quail yolk. The uni added an additional dimension of sweet creaminess which was undeniably decadent, and yes, delicious.

I hesitated before ordering the Kobe Short Rib on the hot rock, but it was definitely one of the highlights of the evening. A modernized version of Korean barbecue, the dish was presented like Japanese yakiniku. Each piece of short rib was precisely cut against the grain to highlight the intense marbling in the meat. When the meat was placed on the hot rock, it sizzled and immediately contracted, releasing luscious aromas of Korean barbecue in the steam coming off of the rock.

A tray of butter lettuce, laid out meticulously on a lacquered tray like upturned flowers, accompanied the meat. Once the meat was cooked, a piece was placed in the middle of the lettuce leaf, to be eaten like a lettuce wrap with the traditional Korean sauce. Though the portions were smaller than what you'd get in a Korean restaurant, this was definitely a case of quality over quantity. The meat, when it was cooked, is the kind that you dream about: so, so tender, teeming with flavor, practically melting in your mouth. Do yourself a favor and order two orders of this, because it's that good. And while you're at it, make sure you get an order of the secret recipe house kim chi to go with it.

Other must-orders if you go to Nara are the open-faced soup dumplings, served in an order of six, with the soup sitting on top of the dumpling, ready to slurp. Chang's version of bibimbap, akin to a type of fried rice, was also a standout for its special sauce intermingled with chunks of lardon-like crisp marinated pork belly.

The dduk bokki, or spicy rice cakes with oxtail stew, was also quite special. People familiar with the version made famous at Chris Shepherd's Underbelly will definitely want to try Chang's spicier, heartier version. Chewy oblong pillows of glutinous rice get pan fried to a slight crispiness before they're topped with this thick red, spicy oxtail stew that will give spice wimps a run for their money (my mouth was throbbing from the heat, but I loved it).

There were a few items that didn't wow as much as the others. I had higher expectations for the bulgogi stuffed steamed bao -- Momofuku-like steamed buns stuffed with marinated Korean beef and Korean pickled-somethings. They came two to an order and just fell flat in terms of texture and flavor, but a friend who'd visited previously loved the ones that she'd had. Maybe it was just my order. One of sushi rolls we ordered was also just not my cup of tea, as it was deep fried and covered in sauce. Our server said it was her favorite, but there are many rolls on the menu, so make sure you know what you're getting.

To be fair, I visited during the first week that they opened, so while there were a few minor misses, I left impressed at what Chang is trying to do. Nara is a shiny, bright new star on the Houston dining landscape. The dining room could not be more beautiful. The flavors are bold and bright, and the quality of the ingredients shine through. Just don't go with the expectation that this is a Korean barbecue house from Korea town. It's not. It's modern Korean, and it's about time we had something like this in Houston.

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