Restaurant Reviews

Houston Sushi's Polar Opposites: Soma & Oishii Sushi

As the name suggests, the "Crazy Irishman" roll at Soma on Washington is not one of those restrained-looking creations composed by a Zen-practicing master sushi chef. This over-the-top, fiery-hot and slightly sweet sushi roll combining salmon, tuna and avocado is wrapped in green soybean paper and flash-fried. Then it's topped with fish roe, sweet sauce, green onion and sriracha mayo. The bright-green skin has white stripes of mayo and orange stripes of sriracha mayo zigzagging across it with chopped scallion and roe protrusions. It looked sort of like a humongous tropical cater­pillar on acid.

I made the mistake of eating some of this wildly flavored sushi roll before trying the more restrained "toro crunch," a delicately flavored and neatly symmetrical Japanese roll that combines two kinds of tuna with green onions and chives. But the Irishman wouldn't let go of my tongue. I tried to cleanse my palate with pickled ginger, wasabi, iced tea and a whole seaweed salad, all to no avail. Don't get me wrong — I loved that insane Celt raw fish creation — but next time I'll save it for last.

The lingering blaze in my mouth hindered my enjoyment of the elegant "toro crunch" roll. The two kinds of tuna give this classic sushi roll a huge tuna flavor. The presentation is a Zen composition of symmetrical shapes and restrained colors. Chopped fatty toro tuna and chives are the soft center, while a strip of bluefin tuna strides the crest of the rice cylinder. Then comes a dollop of fish roe. The astonishing garnish that teeters on top is a diagonal slice of tempura-battered chive green — it looked like a chicken-fried blade of grass. My tablemate declared Soma's "toro crunch" and the crazy Irishman two of the best sushi rolls in town. But at $11 and $17 respectively, we found ourselves reluctant to order another round.

We had started off with a bowl of watery miso soup and an eye-popping seaweed salad. The salad came on a glass plate with one cobalt blue edge. It was topped with a huge slice of what I am guessing to be a radish. The oversize vegetable slice was lime green on the edge, with a beet purple color in the middle that radiated outward. It looked like a vegetable that had been painted in one of those booths at the fair where you pour paint on a turntable. The radish, or whatever it was, didn't taste like much of anything — it was a flashy garnish, though. The seaweed salad was also topped with two bright-red chunks of fake crab. The plate was a riot of color, but as my tablemate observed, in the end it was just a standard seaweed salad and some fake crab and pretty garnishes.

Located at 4820 Washington Avenue, Soma is the flashiest sushi bar in town. The bar is in the middle of the dining room, and the soaring modern lines of the interior are warmly appointed in honey-colored woods. Giant panels display images of geishas. When the place opened last year, chef Robert Gadsby was there with an innovative Franco-Japanese menu and his own take on sushi. In those days, the seaweed salad had buckwheat noodles, tuna, pickled mushroom and avocado in it. Gadsby has since moved on and opened his own restaurant at Studewood and 10th Street in the Heights. He calls the new place Bedford, after his hometown.

The "crazy Irishman" roll is probably the most popular item at Soma, but it's hardly the sort of thing Robert Gadsby would serve. Now that Gadsby is gone, Soma owner Yun Cheng has brought in the "crazy Irishman" and other sushi creations from his popular Azuma restaurants. Some of Gadsby's heady multicultural concepts are still on the menu, but they seem out of place now. I doubt they will last much longer as Soma zeroes in on its market — the sushi socialites.

Soma is the Cheng family's first venture into the world of high-fashion sushi. Like Fish and Uptown Sushi, Soma serves expensive and elaborately decorated sushi creations. But some of the well-dressed types who gather at these places to check each other out never actually eat the food. For the supermodel set, the gorgeous plates function mainly as fashion accessories. Nobody here is giving the food a lot of thought.

We didn't go to Soma to see or be seen that afternoon — we were there for lunch. And after dropping more than $50, we were still hungry. I suggested we go to Oishii, and my sushi-loving friend eagerly agreed.

Fans of Oishii Sushi on Richmond near Green­way Plaza don't rave about the atmosphere or the beautiful people who hang out there. In fact, the walls are covered with dated-looking wood paneling, the blue fabric awning above the sushi bar hangs crookedly and there are several television sets blaring all day long. Amateur paintings are hung on the walls to serve as decorations. The ambience reminds me of a suburban rec room in a converted garage. There is free Wi-Fi, and much of the scruffy, multicultural crowd is usually takingadvantage of it.

The appeal at Oishii is well-made sushi at ludicrously low prices. We sat down in a creaky booth and ordered the blackboard special known as "B," a $25.95 feast for two. First there were two bowls of hearty miso soup, and then there was a platter of sushi and rolls. These included two pieces of buttery salmon sushi; two pieces of bright, fresh tuna sushi; two pieces of spicy pepper tuna sushi; two pieces of super-fatty escolar sushi; two pieces of melt-in-your-mouth yellowtail sushi; a luscious skydiver roll with tempura softshell crab topped with eel, avocado and mayo; and a Stella roll stuffed with crunchy tempura shrimp and topped with lots of imitation crab salad. Not a bad feed for $13 apiece.

Soma and Oishii are both very popular restaurants, but they represent two opposite poles of the sushi spectrum. At funky Oishii, most regular sushi is a dollar apiece, with rolls starting around $5. During happy hours on weekdays from three to seven and on Saturdays and Sundays from four to six, domestic beer is $1.25, imported is $1.75, hot sake is $3 and most appetizers are buy one, get one free. At trendy Soma, regular sushi starts at around $2.50, rolls start at $11 and for happy hour from four to seven on weeknights, there's a 10 percent discount — but only if you stand at the bar.

So which place do you like better? I asked my sushi-obsessed tablemate. He looked perplexed and said he needed to think about it a minute. It's not really a fair question, of course. Comparing the sushi at Soma with the sushi at Oishii is like comparing the hamburger at the bar at Cafe Annie with the hamburger at Lankford Grocery. They are both great, but you go to these places for entirely different reasons.

"When I want to go out socializing at happy hour, I'd rather go to Soma," my lunchmate finally concluded. "But for lunch, or when I'm just plain hungry for sushi, I'd rather go to Oishii."

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh