A reunion with some old friends prompted a dinner at Nabi. Having recently tried some smashing Korean Fried Chicken at Bon Chon in Virginia, I was eager to try Nabi's version as well as some of their small plates and sushi.
Never has a restaurant inspired such ambivalence. The morning after, I couldn't decide between not returning within the year and marking my calendar for a repeat visit in May.
Katharine Shilcutt's review , while highly commendatory, prepared me for the fact that Nabi was still working out issues with regards to food and service, so I had no expectations for perfection.
But some snafus and awkward moments made me conclude that Nabi still has a long way to go in terms of securing Houston patronage.
We started off with cocktails; I ordered the Punch 5 (chardonnay, white cranberry juice, ginger beer). Upon inquiry, I learned it was served on the rocks, but my server informed me it I could have straight up if I desired, so I asked him politely to skip the ice as my functional alcoholism requires non-watered-down booze. A few minutes later he returned with our round, including a Punch 5 stacked with ice in a skinny glass. I give the server props for catching the mistake before I even had to say anything. The remedied concoction, however, wasn't much better: a short glass with one large ice cube bobbing annoyingly at the surface. And the taste was bland; I hardly detected the ginger beer, and the white wine was flat and diluted. Miss.
I fared much better with the O'Captain Roll. The softshell crab was crisp but not greasy, enveloping togorashi, lemon, and pickled shallots, and draped with escolar. Pepper and lemon added piquant notes to the oily fish, and plump sticky rice provided a warm, grainy base. Hit.
Awkward moment No. 1 occurred as the five of us were enjoying our appetizers; two entrees were brought to the table, giving rise to that inevitable dialogue of "I'll wait for you guys"..."No, go ahead, ours will come soon, it will get cold"..."Are you sure?"...blah blah.
Except the other entrees didn't come soon, rather a good 15 minutes later, meaning half the party was nearly done with their meal while the rest of us hadn't yet tackled a main course.
Given that some have argued Bon Chon does some of the country's best Korean Fried Chicken, I wasn't looking for a replica at Nabi. Nor did I find one. Their version, however, is pretty damn good, and the portion is more than generous. Heavy on the white meat, the KFC is thickly battered and dressed in a chili sauce that's more sweet than spicy. Fine for this spice wimp; heat lovers might find something lacking. I initially used my chopsticks to nibble on the heavy strips and switched to my paws, which facilitated larger bites as well as copious sauce on my face and hands. Hit.
And now for another awkward moment. My husband and I had ordered a side of braised eggplant to share with our chicken, and this is what arrived:
"I'm sorry," I said to the server. "I thought we ordered the braised eggplant." (The braised eggplant is a side dish , $4, not to be confused with the fried eggplant appetizer, $7.5).
"Oh, this is the braised eggplant," replied the server. "Enjoy."
Um, no. I am now 97 percent sure it's the fried eggplant with cilantro mint sauce. Readers, what do you think? Although it tasted great (hit?), we looking for something lighter (i.e., not fried) to complement our entrees (miss?). I know many of you might ask why I didn't have the waiter send it back to the kitchen, insisting it was correct, but in the moment I second-guessed myself and wondered if I was losing my shit in terms of food terminology.
Timing continued to be an issue at the end of the dinner; the server dropped off the bill and then virtually disappeared, protracting the entire charge-and-sign process. Oddly enough, we still were in and out in under an hour. Expediency in service is generally a good thing, but overlapping courses made for a truncated dining experience uncomfortably reminiscent of a fast food restaurant.
I dunno. I sure do like that fried chicken, though it seems an insufficient saving grace in light of more uneven food and drink. I won't promise not to shun Nabi forever. I just don't know if not loving certain things about it is enough to outweigh really not hating other aspects. Confused? Yeah, me, too.