Nabi Debuts New Korean Side of a Trimmed-Down Menu

Nabi has quickly turned into my favorite neighborhood restaurant.

It's the answer to the question Where do I want to eat tonight? when I'm not dining out for work and instead want to relax over good food with good friends. It's inexpensive -- especially during happy hour -- and offers a range of options for everyone in the group, from sushi to ramen, from fried chicken to fresh vegetables.

And now there's a new range to explore: a Korean barbecue side that offers sizzling platters of meat such as marinated slices of rib eye and garlic-soy sauce short ribs, each served with rice and daikon radish kimchi.

The traditional Korean barbecue dishes are given a signature Nabi twist, mixing in Japanese ingredients and served up on hot comals that would normally hold fajitas.

"It's a Tex-Mex twist," I told chef and owner Ji Kang last week. "I like it."

"That was the whole idea," he beamed back.

Kang himself is Korean, and I'm terrifically pleased to see more of his own background on the menu now -- a menu which has been considerably trimmed down from past incarnations. The platters run between $10 and $16 each, which may seem pricey, but remember that everything here is meant for sharing. And the immense piles of meat on each comal are no exception.

Between the four platters we tried, it was the tangy sliced rib eye that was our favorite, with the sharp notes of garlic and ginger balanced out by the sweetness of Asian pears. I wanted to like the spicy octopus more than I did, with the cheerful threat of bright red gochujang chili paste and shisito peppers lacing the dish, but the sauce ended up being too sweet -- something I have faith Kang will rectify.

In addition to the barbecue side of the menu, Kang has added other instant favorites that I tried one recent evening: a spicy kimchi stew with pork neck and a single quail egg and oxtail dumplings that come in a silky broth that's nearly clear but remarkably rich. Pickled plums and beech mushrooms cut the fattiness of both the broth and the meat inside the soft dumplings, which are just chewy enough to require a faint tug with the teeth but never gummy or overcooked.

"If only you could have some soju on the menu, now, you'd be all set," I said laughing to Kang.

"I want to," he said. "Believe me." But the restaurant only has a beer and wine permit (which also covers sake). Soju -- a traditional Korean spirit that's similar to vodka, but far sweeter -- requires a full alcoholic beverage permit. "Maybe someday," Kang said with a smile.

For now, though, I'm just pleased that Nabi has the capacity to keep quietly reinventing itself while still staying true to its initial roots -- all while keeping its young classics like ramen, brisket potstickers and grilled romaine hearts intact on the revamped menu.

Follow Eating Our Words on Facebook and on Twitter @EatingOurWords

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Katharine Shilcutt