Chef Chat

Morimoto Who? Houston has Nobu Kagawa at Uchi

You've done it, come on, you know you have. Most American sushi eaters have succeeded in bastardizing the whole tradition and delicacy of sushi. We make paste out of soy sauce and wasabi and dip our beautiful piece of o-toro and rice in it till it's dripping and then shove it in our mouths. The wasabi burn goes up our nose, we feel accomplished that we could take the heat and move on to the next piece. Have you ever really tasted o-toro? Not if you're a dipper. Sushi fish is delicate, subtle and sublime.

If you are ever given the opportunity to have a sushi master prepare sushi just for you, don't say no. Sushi master Nobu Kagawa is the head sushi chef at Uchi, and I had a once-in-a-lifetime experience thanks to him. After my dinner of Paul Qui's dishes last week, Paul invited me back to sit at the sushi bar and have him and Nobu prepare sushi for me. I did not say no.

As we were seated, Paul came to greet us and said, "You won't need those menus, I've got this journey taken care of." My heart raced a little at the anticipation of what my evening was going to feed and teach me. I sat directly in front of Nobu and became mesmerized by his presence. He greeted us graciously and said, "I am preparing all orders tonight so please understand if your courses slow down at times." That's right; he was cutting the fish for every sushi order in the restaurant that night, in addition to taking me and my dining companions on a culinary journey like I have never known.

We began our journey with a palate cleanser of green tea sorbet with a micro citrus blossom. Nobu instructed us that he would be serving the sushi as he intended it to be -- no sauces, soy or wasabi would be necessary. In the presence of traditional sushi and a sushi master, the use of the soy/wasabi paste is an insult. Additionally, the pickled ginger is intended as a palate cleanser between courses. It is not to be laid atop the fish to further degrade and alter its flavor.

Nobu began our sushi flights with tuna, yellowtail and salmon belly. The tuna was lightly torched, had a speck of freshly grated ginger and was as soft as velvet and dreamily succulent. The yellowtail was painted with a special soy sauce and was creamy and buttery with a hint of saltiness from the soy. It was like a great French salted butter but from the ocean. I had never tried salmon belly before - this will not be my last time. It had an unctuous, deep sea taste with a hint of citrus sauce that added just the right amount of brightness to bring it to the top of the sea.

As Nobu had to prepare other fish for the restaurant, I began to learn a lot more about him. When I sat down, I was not aware of his history or pedigree. As the night went on I gathered nuggets of information that clued me in to what I was witnessing. He worked at Uchi Austin for about seven months and has only been in Houston for about four months. He has worked extensively in Japan and returns two to three times a year to continue to study fish and continue his mastery.

Our next flight was a study in flounder. Paul explained that we were being served Engawa. It is the tenderloin part beneath the fin that is succulently fatty. It is usually reserved for the chefs themselves or their favorite customers. Nobu prepared it three ways. The first piece, Nobu had skewered and torched and then lightly salted with shiso salt. It was satiny and meaty and delicately sweet. The second piece had candied quinoa and fresh horseradish grated on top. The satiny texture was dotted with sweet, crispy bits of quinoa and a hint of heat that made the fish feel very meaty on the palate. The final piece was served raw and finished with a smattering of Maldon salt. It was perfection. The sharp salt coupled with the creamy flesh danced and melted on the tongue sweetly. It was three very different textures and tastes in one fish. Glorious.

Nobu is from Hiroshima, and his father is a sushi master also. Morimoto also grew up in Hiroshima, and they know each other. In fact, Nobu worked at Morimoto's Napa restaurant for about a year. Still working my way through his pedigree, I asked him if he had learned a lot from Morimoto. He looked up and grinned graciously at me and shook his head and said quietly, "No, I am better than him," in a very heavy Japanese accent.

Let me interject here that other than going to Japan, the pinnacle of my sushi wish list was to have Morimoto make me sushi until I said stop. It was at this moment that I realized what I was witnessing and what I was the recipient of in this meal.

Nobu Kagawa is a sushi master of more than 25 years who was taught by his father. Nobu has knives that are more than 20 years old. It felt ceremonial to watch him open his knife kit and exchange them as one got dull after hours of cutting. Nobu is also trained in Kaiseki. For those of you not familiar, let me just say that it is the height of traditional, elite, privileged society cooking. Chefs train for years, and there are no Kaiseki-trained chefs in America because so much of the meal depends on local ingredients available only in Japan. It is a very expensive, reserved and traditional meal served in and on some of the most beautiful, historical, and hand-selected pieces of pottery. The serving vessels are as important as the food that goes in them. I was eating a meal from a chef that wielded generations of sushi training, and traditional Japanese ceremonial cooking training, and he never broke a sweat, spoke above an indoor voice level or moved faster than a man sure of his history.

The next study was in Mackerel. Nobu prepared Horse, Jack and Norwegian. The Horse Mackerel had a housemade ponzu sauce that brightened the deep, fatty flavor of mackerel with a lemony high note that sang beautifully. The Jack Mackerel was painted with a sake, soy and mirin mixture that left the Jack tasting wonderfully salty and of the deep sea. Finally the Norwegian Mackerel was cured in salt and vinegar and lightly seared. It was citrusy, limey and sweet. I have always avoided Mackerel in the past because it is too fishy-tasting. Alas, it is all in the freshness of the fish and how it is prepared.

Nobu was able to take care of some other orders while Paul prepared us stunning vegetable sushi. He had made fresh spring peas with homemade kimchee and served them nigiri style. The peas popped like caviar with a heat that gently covered the palate. He said he intended it to be like vegetarian Ikura and it was. Trumpet Royal mushrooms are in season, and he lightly heated them through until they were sweet and earthy and tasted of sweet cream. Deliciously, ramps are also in season, and Paul served them grilled with fresh wasabi. They were smoky, heady and flecked with floral heat from the wasabi. I almost forgot where I was and thought being a vegan was maybe possible. Then Nobu stepped back in - suck it, vegans, you don't know what you're missing!

Nobu speaks very highly of his country, and he obviously loves returning there as often as possible. I asked him his favorite sushi, and he said he doesn't eat it anywhere except Japan. He explained in his quiet, noble and thick accent that even though we can get fish in one to two days from Japan, by that time he can tell the difference when he cuts it and in the feel of the flesh. I understand, now, how once you have the best you can't go back to less than. My next sushi meal will be difficult to orchestrate. While very sure of his skills and his knowledge, Nobu is a very gentle and quiet man with an unassuming demeanor.

He is quick to recognize the many sushi masters in Japan who simply aren't recognized or famous. I asked him if he knew Jiro or had eaten at his restaurant. Nobu knows him and says he is very talented but there are more talented sushi chefs than him; Jiro was just singled out. When asked if Morimoto is easy to work for, Nobu reflected, "No. He is very rough and loud with his staff but very friendly and kind to his customers and public. He has gotten too big." It is clear that recognition, fame or franchises are not Nobu's goals. He prizes his skills, is always seeking more knowledge and is kind and gracious to his colleagues and customers.

Watching Nobu cut fish is watching moving art. There is a rhythmic passion to every long slice of his blade, to every deliberate movement. No hand movement, no body shift, no breath is wasted. Each is deliberate and focused on the piece of sushi he is preparing. Southerners talk about "love" being an ingredient -- well, don't think for a moment I didn't taste the history, skill and grace of Nobu Kagawa in every piece of sushi he handed me. I looked around the dining room and thought how sad it was that no one there knew that Nobu Kagawa was making their sushi and what that meant.

We were served seven more courses of tastes I know I will never be lucky enough to have again. Scallops that literally melted with freshness, baby sea breem with masago and shiso and hay seeds, Waygu short ribs sous vide for 72 hours, Waygu flank that was the very definition of what red meat should taste like, sea bass, black snapper, sea eel, freshwater eel, octopus, uni, goldeneye snapper and foie gras. It was the perfect orchestration of flavors, textures, temperatures and portions.

Much thought and preparation went into developing this culinary journey, and the skills, knowledge and grace that Nobu and Paul harbor did not go unnoticed or unappreciated. It is a meal I will never forget and a meeting of culinary masters that I will treasure for quite some time. Houston is privileged to have such a sushi master in our midst -- one that honors the fish, the rice and the traditions. I hope Nobu Kagawa stays at Uchi a very long time. Thank you to Paul Qui for visiting Houston and sharing his cooking mastery with us also. I hope he visits Houston again, soon.

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Patrise Shuttlesworth