Over the past year, the Heights has been the epicenter for ambitious restaurant openings in Houston. These include Hunky Dory, Morningstar, Foreign Correspondents, Bernadine’s, Republic Diner + Sojubang and Southern Goods. Just across Shepherd Drive from the last is KA Sushi, and it is perhaps the least talked about and most underrated of all of these. Its arrival, though, has not gone unnoticed by diners. KA Sushi is open only for dinner, and it’s not uncommon to find every table and bar seat taken. A reservation is a must to avoid a wait of up to an hour.
KA Sushi refuses to define itself as either a drinking-focused izakaya or a fine Japanese restaurant. It straddles the line and insists on covering it all, with not only an extensive food menu but also a list of cocktails, Japanese whiskey, Scotch, cognac and other spirits that rivals those at Houston’s better bars. The lively, complex menu is in direct contrast to the stripped-down, industrial feel of the dining room. Dark metal braces outline the windows. The wooden booths are dark brown with dark gray cushions. The lines are elegant, but the room would benefit from a bit of lively color to match the lively crowd. The brightly lit bar, however, is a cheerful focal point. (For a more intimate setting, ask to be seated in the small, cozy dining room in the back.)
The menu would be daunting if it weren’t so much fun to read. Page after page lists nigiri, sashimi, ramen, agemono (fried dishes), yakimono (grilled dishes), hand rolls, specialty rolls, hot rock preparations and more. Considering that KA has the same owners as Fat Bao, a casual restaurant that sports dishes like “Fat Fries” and “Crab Daddy,” perhaps an eclectic nature is expected.
A small page in front cites the daily specials, and is well worth paying attention to. There’s everything from nigiri sushi made with just-arrived fish to cocktails that break the mold of what one might expect to find in a Japanese restaurant. Just one example is the exquisite Butchertown Alexander, with Copper & Kings Butchertown Cask Reserve Brandy, crème de cacao, cream and nutmeg.
Equally compelling are the food specials, such as the king salmon nigiri accented with soy sauce-infused tobiko and truffle aioli. Others aim high but miss the mark by a tad. A middleneck clam ceviche with mango, lime, yuzu and cilantro was beautifully presented in the shells, and the flavors worked well together. Unfortunately, the ingredients had been so finely diced that they were less distinctive than they might have been.
As with the aforementioned king salmon nigiri, sushi is more in the modern style, with most garnished or accented with an extra ingredient or two to add flavor and interest. Therefore, suzuki, or sea bass, might arrive accented with just a touch of dashi-infused soy and thin, punchy, candied jalapeño slices on top. Japanese horse mackerel is brightened with lime zest and smoked soy sauce, and so on. KA Sushi’s flavor-combination ideas always seem to work, and for that reason, the Chef’s Selection of ten pieces of nigiri is a highly recommended, fun adventure that can serve as the focal point of the meal. Certain kinds of fish are quickly seared on top, which not only leaves a dark and attractive mottling but makes the overall flavor more complex. The tussle between the cooked and the raw, both in the same bite, is mightily intriguing.
Ditto for the sashimi. Too often, Japanese restaurants serve high-priced but miserly sashimi platters that leave diners wanting, but KA Sushi offers 20 pieces for $35. That’s only five dollars more than the price of the nigiri selection, a fact that our server helpfully pointed out. For diners who are really all about the fish (or are perhaps on low-carb diets), this is an excellent selection to split with a friend. There are occasions when the quality of the fish seems to stop just short of melt-in-your-mouth. Overall, though, it’s quite good. Even tuna, one of the fish most commonly used in sushi, is meaty and worthwhile. Yellowtail, in all its glistening, natural oiliness, is silken and smooth. Though the platter is generous, with selections like these, an aficionado of raw fish can be forgiven for wanting more when everything’s been consumed.
Sometimes, there are fun surprises on the chef’s sashimi offering, like bright red baby octopus. The tentacles were delicate and had been dipped in sesame oil and seeds. It was a tender treat but not for the squeamish. One dining companion bravely nibbled it, laid most of it on her plate and then proclaimed repeatedly that it looked like “a little baby.” It’s a fair bet it was her first and last baby octopus.
The live scallop, on the other hand, was more artful than intimidating. The freshly cut slices are laid symmetrically around a deep green column formed of a hollowed cucumber on the bottom half of a scallop shell. The top half was propped upright for a “Venus rising from the sea” effect. The center was filled with more of the restaurant’s version of clam ceviche. The taste was mild, smooth and gently saline, just the way a scallop should taste.
For those not willing to venture into such territory, there are plenty of less intimidating hot dishes. The soft-shell crab hand rolls were simply perfect, the fried and battered legs artfully curving up and out of a cone of green nori, a wrapper made of dried and roasted seaweed. A bed of rice bolstered the structure of the cone, and sprigs of watercress, their twin pairs of leaves resembling tiny green flowers, sprang out of the top alongside the delicate crab legs.
At times KA Sushi’s ambition overshoots what is actually possible. There are two kinds of ramen on the menu, oxtail and lobster. It takes so much intensive work to get the broth right, though, that ramen is not necessarily a good fit for a restaurant with a huge menu. While KA’s oxtail ramen isn’t a bad soup, it doesn’t seem quite like ramen, either. The broth was spiked with some warming spices, like star anise, so it seemed like a closer relative to Vietnamese pho. Similarly, KA’s version of s’mores missed the point. It’s not so much about the toasty marshmallows — of which there were plenty, brown and bubbly in a little cast-iron pan — as it is about achieving balance with a goodly amount of melted chocolate. That’s the part that was lacking, with only a miserly brush of ganache across the bottom of the pan.
Conversely, the mochi (ice cream balls in a stretchy wrapper made from pounded, glutinous rice) was the perfect ending to a complex meal. It comes in six flavors — mango, azuki (sweet red bean paste), tiramisu, green tea, strawberry and sakura (cherry blossom). An order includes three cut into half-moons, and the pretty pastel colors make for a lovely tableau. (Fun fact: Mochi ice cream is an American invention, created by businesswoman Frances Hashimoto in Los Angeles. Hashimoto passed away in 2012 after a long and storied career that included working to preserve Japanese culture in her hometown.)
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The best possible introduction to KA Sushi is to get there when the doors open at 5 p.m. and take advantage of happy hour, which lasts until 6:30. Two skewers of the excellent chicken hearts, halved, brushed with shiso paste and roasted, are only $3. The inordinately fun vegetable tempura, which has a slice of red beet and a few deep-fried shiso leaves in the mix, is $5. Best of all, though, is the odd-sounding chocolate shrimp. Five of the crustaceans are battered and fried until even the tails are shatteringly crispy. Then they are garnished with white chocolate that’s been grated to a fine snow. It’s a risk in a place that takes plenty of them, and it pays off, with creamy cocoa butter amplifying the natural sweetness of the crunchy shrimp.
In a sense, that dish represents what KA Sushi is: brave, risk-taking and successful. It eschews the safe image of a Japanese restaurant that strives for perfection in favor of an enthusiastic concept that infuses fun into every aspect of the menu. Sushi purists may criticize the broad offerings as a failure to focus. However, KA Sushi is a crowd-pleaser and leaves a pleasant, lingering memory that is not easily denied.
1901 North Shepherd, 832-879-2118. Hours: 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays.
Chicken hearts (happy hour) $3
Vegetable tempura (happy hour) $5
Mango clam ceviche $7
Chocolate shrimp (happy hour) $9
Oxtail ramen $14
Live scallop $22
Chef’s selection nigiri $30
Chef’s selection sashimi $35
Mochi ice cream $5
Butchertown Alexander $12