First Look at Toyama

You may have noticed that the shuttered Chicken 'N Egg Roll that haunted 2802 S. Shepherd is no more, a sleek and modern building in its place. It's Toyama, the newest Japanese restaurant from the same family that owns Osaka, further down on Westheimer.

Open for only a few weeks, the restaurant was still having its share of service sputters when my dining companion and I checked it out this past Monday evening. Despite this, the place was fairly crowded, with every booth taken and three people perched at the sushi bar. The interior of Toyama shimmers with a modern electricity, neon installations lighting up the room and clean, natural stone walls contrasting with stark black and reddish-orange upholstery throughout. it's far less traditional than Osaka -- there isn't even a tatami room here -- but has a staid Japanese menu with comfort food classics like katsu don and ramen in addition to sushi and sashimi.

Like its big sister, Toyama is a fan of lagniappe. Shirley, who fans will recognize from Osaka, was flitting around the high-ceilinged dining room on Monday night, delivering plates of complimentary volcano rolls and shiso hasami age to each new table -- something old, something new.

Both little plates were wonderful, especially the minty and briny shiso hasami age, but the rest of the meal was a bit uneven.

Our table was divided between comfort food and fish food: My dining companion ordered the katsu don and an order of chawan mushi, while I stuck with the combination plate of sushi and sashimi. We split an order of chicken yaki tori to start, which came in a sweetly tangy sauce that was sadly wasted on the dry, brittle chicken that stuck stubbornly to the skewers.

Chawan mushi didn't live up to expectations, either. Kubo's in the Village is still the standard by which I judge all bowls of chawan mushi in Houston, and Toyama's bland and far too watery egg custard didn't stack up. Despite repeated bites, all I could taste was egg -- no earthy dashi, no saltiness, no brine from the one half piece of shrimp. This was chawan mushi by and for the truly timid.

Things perked up over dinner, however, when my dining companion received the single best bowl of pork katsu don I've ever tasted. What the timid chawan mushi had lacked in complexity, the katsu don made up for in spades: a juicy pork cutlet, breaded with just enough egg to make it stick, flavored with plenty of dashi and slightly sweet mirin and served over nutty brown rice. Caramelized onions mixed with the bracing bite of green onions on top, all covered with a fried egg that oozed into the bowl.

Although I enjoyed my sushi, I found myself longing to grab more bites from the bowl when my dining companion wasn't looking. Trying to control myself, I focused on the platter in front of me: six basic pieces of sushi, six basic salmon rolls and nine fat slices of sashimi. I was hugely disappointed when I picked up the first piece of sushi: the fish was nearly ice cold. I deliberately worked my way through the platter as slowly as possible as a result, hoping the sashimi would warm up to room temperature at least.

Despite this, the rice in the nigiri was phenomenal -- exceptionally well-seasoned and packed neither too loose nor too tight. My only real complaint was with the cold fish on top. My dining companion snatched two of the sushi pieces off my plate and, before I could comment aloud, remarked: "This rice is incredible!"

"I've never had sushi rice flavored this well in Houston," he continued, bemused. It didn't even need a dip into the soy sauce, such was the ideal saltiness of the sticky rice. I ate the rest of my plate without complaint and was happy to see a complimentary ball of green tea ice cream with a fried banana headed our way as I finished. Just like Osaka, I thought to myself.

I'd like to go back and visit with Toyama's two sushi chefs, who were bent over nearly all night long, working furiously, and see what else they have to offer after such amazing rice. If they can just dust that chill off the fish, they might have a really good thing going over on South Shepherd.

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