When we talk about pastry in Houston, it would be impossible to overlook Chris Leung. Though he's only been at it for four and a half years (read our Chef Chats Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 from December if you want to know the details), Leung's whimsical dessert creations get noticed. They win awards. They get people talking.
Even when I don't absolutely love the dessert, which is rare, the first bite is generally associated with some sort of unexpected surprise, like a texture I wasn't expecting, a savory flavor that has taken on a sweet spin, or an ingredient that I have never tasted before.
This week, Leung, who recently joined the Azuma Group as Pastry Chef, debuted a new dessert menu at Kata Robata. Each of the dishes subtly incorporates a Japanese element. You may get green tea matcha in one dish, black sesame in another. There will be new specials every other day, in addition to the regular menu, and if you plan to get a chef's-tasting omakase, he'll be on site to whip up something new as well.
I visit Kata Robata frequently enough that I've been able to try several of his new dessert creations. Recently, I tried a seasonal off-menu special of compressed local Texas seedless watermelon. To make it, Leung compressed watermelon with Japanese togirashi chili, adding sweet pickled fennel, volcanic salt, togirashi-spiced crumble, buttermilk sherbet, watermelon ice and vinaigrette made of fennel tops.
I liked how the creamy buttermilk sherbet contrasted with the cold watermelon ice, both melting on the tongue and instantly cooling. The sweet pickled fennel added an interesting twist to the dish, enhancing the watermelon flavor with an herbaceous, grass-like quality, while the watermelon itself had a more pronounced crisp and firmer texture due to the compression. The dessert was cool on the eyes and on the palate, a refreshing foil against our hot Texas weather.
A few weeks earlier, I tried one of the new house menu items, a play on the traditional strawberry shortcake. For that dish, Leung made strawberry mousse the central component, accenting the dish with cinnamon and white chocolate scones, whipped lychee cream, strawberry sorbet and white pepper meringue.
The deconstructed dish was thought-provoking and fun, and again showed many of the elements at which Leung excels: the textural complexity in which smooth and creamy mousse intermingles with crisp meringue and biscuit-y scones; the icy coldness of the strawberry sorbet next to cool whipped lychee cream.
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New on the menu is a chocolate pudding, which I haven't tried yet, with black sesame cake and candied and powdered sesame, with caramelized banana, roasted banana sorbet and yuzu. He also has a warm Texas peach cake, a coffee cake with matcha green tea streusel baked into it, which has honey cream on the bottom, cream cheese lemon sherbet and lemongrass bubbles.
Next week, Leung will also debut a new dessert menu at Azuma Kirby, Azuma Downtown and Azuma on the Lake. Leung says that the Azuma desserts are meant to be more traditional desserts, and include items like strawberry vanilla roll cake, Japanese cheesecake, green tea banana tart, and mango mousse with chocolate namelaka and miso.