In Japan, an izakaya is like a pub, where the food is designed to complement the drinks. At the Houston restaurant simply called Izakaya, though, some of the dishes are so gorgeous that they can’t help but take center stage. Take, for example the bagna càuda with mentaiko dip. The upright garden of orange baby carrots, purple endive leaves, green beans, broccoli florets and cauliflower in hues of orange and purple is utterly gorgeous.
Interestingly, bagna càuda has Italian roots. It’s a hot dip from the Piedmont region made with anchovies, garlic and butter. Izakaya’s rendition, however, uses mentaiko dip, the Japanese side of the equation. It’s warm, creamy, infused with cod roe and the result is velvety and addictive. The rich dip is a seductive counterpoint to the crisp, fresh vegetables.
Izakaya is the latest endeavor by The Azuma Group, the company that’s also behind Kata Robata, Soma Sushi, Azuma On the Lake and two Azuma Sushi & Robata bars. For months, Houston food writers eagerly anticipated hearing what the new izakaya was going to be named. It was admittedly anticlimactic to find out the answer.
Avid Houston diners may remember Izakaya’s co-executive chef Jean-Philippe Gaston from Kata Robata and Haven. (Kata Robata’s own Manabu Horiuchi is technically the other executive chef, but it’s always Gaston who’s onsite.) At Haven, Gaston developed Cove Cold Bar. It was like a smaller restaurant inside of Haven with its own distinct identity and Gaston reaped acclaim from critics and customers alike for his adventurous takes on cold seafood and fish. When the owner sold the building, Haven was forced to close and Cove died along with it. Although Izakaya has an obvious affinity with Kata Robata, shades of Cove are on the menu as well.
Such is the case with the Vuelve a la Vida, a gleeful mix of fresh-as-can-be scallop, shrimp and octopus mixed with perky slivers of red onion and a goodly amount of garlic. The seafood and vegetables are doused in a lively yuzu hot sauce that is neither too tart nor too spicy. Underneath are three avocado slices at the peak of ripeness — a pretty fan of pale green. The final touch is a smattering of fragile black flecks of volcanic sea salt.
The big crowd favorite that’s well on its way to being a Houston classic is the Mochi & Bacon. The smoky pork is wrapped around rice cakes, then skewered and grilled. Diners will find themselves craving that meaty, chewy sensation long after their meal is over.
Izakaya misses the mark occasionally, but that’s a fairly rare occurrence and those misses are easy to forgive. It’s almost certain that redemption awaits on the next plate. Sometimes, it’s even on the same plate. Not even a clever miso gravy can help the flat, dry planks of chicken fried steak but the bed of juicy kimchi-braised collard greens underneath are worth the price of admission. The Peruvian ceviche has plenty of firm, fresh octopus and sea bream (Madai snapper) but there’s so little tartness that there’s no life or bounce to it.
On the other hand, the textural festival of the hamachi crudo will have fans cheering. Teeny dried sardines known as niboshi lend a popcorn-like crunch to the translucent slices of fish, while a crimson swath of tomato powder across the entire dish adds brilliance in both taste and color.
The desserts don’t have quite as high a batting average as the rest of the menu. Of the four available, two were exquisite and two were just okay. Someone might love the hazelnut or root beer push pops that are more like frozen buttercream frosting than ice cream, but we found them off-putting. As far as the dish called Elvis In Tokyo, we believe The King would be disappointed. It’s a polite dessert, not a decadent one. Even a strip of chocolate covered bacon couldn’t bring the toasted marshmallow ice cream, berry compote and banana almond bread to life. There was no rock ’n’ roll and certainly nothing to make hips gyrate.
The uji kintoki more than made up the difference. It was another textural triumph. The green, crystalline beauty of shaved ice full of matcha tea flavor is wonderfully offset by chewy balls of mochi. The big spoonful of sweet red paste glazing the top lends a grown-up level of sweetness.
The adorable fingerling-shaped churros were also pleasing in their own simple way. The cinnamon- and sugar-dusted bullets of fried dough were accompanied by a saucer of warm dulce de leche sauce for dipping.
Happy hour here is pretty much perfect and there’s plenty of quality and value to be found. An ideal visit starts around 6 p.m. and ends around 8 p.m. A smart diner can start with happy hour deals, linger through dinner and leave quite satisfied. There are mini-versions of some of the dishes on the dinner menu as well as some snacks that are only available during happy hour. A $4 order of king trumpet mushroom stems sliced into neat planks and then grilled were firm and smoky—even better than expected, truth be told. The happy hour versions of the remarkable hamachi crudo dish with the tiny, crunchy sardines and the beautiful, garden-like bagna càuda dish are only $6 each.
The nightly drink specials are just as impressive. A flight of three different sakes is $8 on Wednesday nights. There’s a two-ounce pour of each. Our flight included Snow Maiden, Karatamba and Devil’s Mask, which covered a range from nigori-style to dry. Wine by the glass is half-price on Thursdays and there are $3 mimosas on Sundays.
The vast range of drinks here is quite impressive. There’s sake, wine, beer (both Japanese and domestic craft selections), Scotch, Japanese whisky and wine. On top of that is a wonderful cocktail program. There are simple Japanese-style highballs where a shot of either Scotch, Pierre Ferrand Cognac or Hakushu 12 Year whisky is diluted with fizzy Topo Chico. It’s a wonderful way to enjoy the flavor of these spirits without being overwhelmed by them.
Then, there are the more complex, creative libations, like The Tiger’s Cup. It’s like a spiked, peppery version of Chanh mu?i, or salty Vietnamese lemonade or limeade. It includes Old Tom gin, shishito pepper, lemon, sea salt and tonic. It’s a terrific pre-meal drink. Those looking for something sweeter or more familiar might choose to start with the house whisky cocktail, which incorporates the friendly flavors of peach sesame bitters and peach syrup.
Service is attentive without being intrusive and the wait staff is more than capable of explaining the dishes in detail. If there’s something they don’t know, they’ll go find out. Every time we visited, the staff had excellent recommendations and there was no knee-jerk pointing at the most expensive thing on the menu. These are real people who are a pleasure to interact with and truly enthusiastic about the food and beverages they are serving.
Do make reservations. The young, professional residents of Midtown have heartily embraced Izakaya and the place can be packed, especially on weeknights right after the 9 to 5’ers get off work. The rear dining room is the most fun place to sit, thanks to the gorgeous Japanese pop art murals. There’s also a patio which is especially nice for lunch on a sunny day.
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As far as value goes, it really depends. The drink and happy hour specials are obviously good deals but even on the regular cocktail menu the drink prices are very reasonable. About half of the offerings are $10 or $11. The food menu is more variable: $6 for two small skewers of fried chicken skin might make someone think twice and the unsuccessful chicken fried steak was $14. On the other hand, the good dishes are very fine indeed and the prices seem like a fair tradeoff for quality.
Izakaya delivers whimsical, grown-up fun with a big dose of culinary sophistication. It’s like one of those “choose your own adventure” books. The small plates, reasonable prices and vast array of drinks just beg to be mixed and matched in various arrays on every sojourn. The promise of many adventures to come makes Izakaya a grand new addition, not just to Midtown, but to Houston’s overall culinary scene.
318 Gray, 713-527-8988
Hours: Sundays through Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to midnight.
King Trumpet Mushrooms (happy hour) $4
Bagna Càuda $8
Hamachi Crudo $13
Chicken Fried Steak $14
Peruvian Ceviche $14
Vuelve a la Vida $16
Push Pops $6
Uji Kintoki $6
Elvis In Tokyo $9
Tiger’s Cup $10
Cognac Highball $12