Local Spotlight

Franco-Japanese Meets Molecular Gastronomy at Soma Sushi

Soma Sushi is probably better known as one of those trendy restaurants. It's nestled in the heart of the Washington corridor at the Shepherd intersection, making it the perfect pit stop for some nosh before a night on the town.

It's not as well-known for serious cuisine, but that's exactly what Executive Chef Jason Hauck is creating daily, and if you've been to the restaurant but missed out on his creations, you wouldn't be the only one.

Katherine Shilcutt wrote about "Not Eating Sushi at Soma Sushi" way back in January 2010, but since I'd only ever dined at the sushi bar, I had no idea that he was doing Franco-Japanese cuisine, or that he was experimenting with molecular gastronomy techniques, until sampling some of his dishes at a recent tasting dinner.

Hauck, who took over as Executive Chef at Soma after Robert Gadsby left its helm, has been waging a battle with the "sushi" moniker attached to the Soma name since he took over. "We are a full-service restaurant that happens to have a sushi bar," he tells me. "The owners wanted people to know that we served sushi, but Soma has always been more than a sushi bar."

The evidence is in the food. To prepare his signature akaushi short ribs, the wagyu short rib is cooked sous vide for 48 hours, glazed with truffle sukiyaki, and topped with whipped Boucheron goat cheese mousse, sesame seeds, julienned scallions, Bluebonnet Farms living micro cilantro, and bulgogi foam. Cut into little squares, the ribs were meltingly tender, but full of the flavors of the goat cheese, sesame, and truffle sukiyaki glaze. My companion actually groaned when he took a bite. "You have to try this!" he exclaimed.

The organic pork belly "kakuni," a daily special I had at lunch, was made of a sweet soy-braised pork belly, goma sauce, bacon powder, pickled cucumber, ponzu pickled shitaake, farmers' market greens and blossoms, and fennel vinegar. Beautiful and complex, the ingredients were harmonious on the palate.

The tuna and truffle roll, made of shrimp, avocado, ahi tuna, yuzu tobiko, truffle shoyu and scallions, was simply a delight to eat, the truffle adding an extra bit of decadence to what would otherwise be a standard roll.

And for dessert, a vanilla caramel custard garnished with tellicherry pepper and sugar phyllo crisps, was transformed into something extraordinary when it was topped table-side with what was literally a smoking coconut key-lime "snow."

Even the tea service, overseen by Beverage Director James Watkins, was noteworthy. We chose a Japanese Kyoto Rose Tea, a wonderfully fragrant, smooth tea that was elegantly served in a traditional Japanese cast-iron tea pot. I'm also told that they have a flowering jasmine tea served in a clear glass pot so you can watch the flower expand.

What's really cool, however, is their mango molecular shot, a collaboration between Hauck and Watkins that results in a little gush or burst on the tongue when you take the shot. Playing with "caviar" methods, they figured out a way to encapsulate a chayote squash and jicama liquid into a delicate bubble, what they refer to as a "burst." The chayote-jicama burst is then placed into a glass, and the rest of the shot is created with Tito's Handmade Vodka, fresh mango juice, and coconut-key lime snow. When you down the shot, you get an exhilaratingly unexpected burst on the tongue. It's a must-try, but it's currently only available on weekends.

So, would I consider Soma Sushi a trendy restaurant? By virtue of its location, I can't deny that it's a fashionable place to dine. However, in Soma's case, "fashionable" is not just superficially cool. Soma's got the goods to back it up with some of the most creative and cutting-edge cuisine you'll get in Houston.

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Mai Pham is a contributing freelance food writer and food critic for the Houston Press whose adventurous palate has taken her from Argentina to Thailand and everywhere in between -- Peru, Spain, Hong Kong and more -- in pursuit of the most memorable bite. Her work appears in numerous outlets at the local, state and national level, where she is also a luxury travel correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide.
Contact: Mai Pham