Raw Talent

Chef Kubo's knife is flying. I've ordered chirashi, which the menu describes as eight kinds of sashimi over sushi rice. I have heard that Kubo (short for Hajime Kubokawa) is the best sushi chef in Houston, and I figured this free-form dish would give him a long solo. So I sit at the sushi bar and watch him perform. At last, he sets three lacquered bowls in front of me. The compositions inside look like little Zen sculptures.

The first is a landscape with a snow-white mountain of sticky sushi rice. A silver dollar-size patch of pink denbu, a sweet fish powder, tints the snow near a crinkled shrub of earthy wood-ear mushroom. Strips of an oniony Japanese winter root vegetable lie like fallen logs. A bridge of hot, grilled freshwater eel stretches over the scene.

The second bowl is a waterfall of shimmering sashimi slices. Ivory yellowtail, orange salmon, white mackerel, red tuna and shiny-skinned albacore are accented by bright yellow lemon slices and jagged green mizuni leaf. In the last bowl, two sweet omelet pyramids hold up a fan of chewy white and purple octopus slices. The fish is fabulous, but it's the presentation that blows me away.


Kubo's Japanese Restaurant

2414 University Boulevard (second floor)

713-528-7878. Hours: Tuesday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 11 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 9:30 p.m.

My dining companion orders a sushi roll combo plate. Chef Kubo is Japanese; he doesn't do the rolls. That task falls to a Mexican chef named Alex, who hails from Puebla. While Kubo's work station is devoid of anything but knives and towels, Alex's station is surrounded by rolling mats, plastic wraps and squeeze bottles full of sauces. We taste the sashimi and then the rolls -- what a contrast.

The sushi combo platter is a wacky, multicultural experience. It includes one spicy tuna roll, one Houston roll and one Kubo's roll. The Kubo's roll is crunchy fried shrimp wrapped in nori and rice with lots of mayonnaise. The spicy tuna rolls are heavy on the sirachi sauce. The Houston roll is made with avocado. I recognize the style immediately: This kind of sushi is wildly popular in Mexico City right now.

"Sushi à la mexicana?" I ask Alex. He smiles broadly and nods in the affirmative.

I've often thought about how sushi evolves to reflect the popular taste wherever it goes. But I have never tasted such divergent interpretations side by side. They are as unlikely together as a Japanese gentleman in formal wear and a Texas teenager in a Britney Spears outfit. The only thing they have in common is the raw fish.

January is a big month for raw fish, thanks to New Year's resolutions. This is the time when we atone for our Christmas cookies by joining the gym and eating less red meat. Sushi is one of the brightest stars in this dark night of deprivation -- the rare culinary treat that fits into the low-fat, low-cholesterol, low-guilt regime. That's part of the reason that sushi is one of the hottest food trends in America.

The National Sushi Society reports that from 1988 to 1998, the number of sushi bars in the United States quintupled to 5,000. In 1999, 40 percent more Americans ate sushi than in 1994. Food trends guru Phil Lembert predicts, "Sushi may well be the new pizza."

Now there's something to think about. Does that mean we'll be able to call Sushi Hut to get a raw fish fix delivered during Monday-night football? One thing's for sure: If sushi is the new pizza, then quality is going to do a nosedive. And if you've seen what already passes for sushi at supermarkets and chain restaurants, you know what I mean. Fake crabmeat is not my idea of sushi.

There is nothing wrong with California rolls and dynamite rolls and all the rest of that multicultural genre, as long as they're made with the best ingredients. But traditional Japanese sushi is a completely different experience. The aesthetic of Kubo's chirashi is absolutely shocking. It reminds you of what you've been missing in all the modern interpretations.

I heard about Kubo's Japanese Restaurant from a regular reader named G. Michael Freeman. Freeman sent me an e-mail that said: "I want to let you know about a great new sushi bar in West University. The sushi chef is Japanese and he is a hard-ass. He insists upon quality, freshness and size. They need help because of their funky location. Nobody knows about the place."

Kubo's is on the second floor of that giant concrete parking structure in the Rice Village across Morningside from The Ginger Man. Park your car in the concrete cavern and then look for a little sign on the ground floor that indicates the way to the stairwell. It all looks pretty dismal, until you emerge upstairs in a snazzy mezzanine decorated with planters and outdoor seating. The area is shared by Two Rows, Bayou City Crawfish Café and Kubo's. On our first visit, this second-story plaza was loud with music and crowded with well-dressed singles drinking beer and margaritas. I was tempted to hang out awhile before dinner, but my date shoved me through Kubo's front door.

Inside, the rock and roll of the mezzanine is replaced by cool jazz. The restaurant is decorated in an elegant, modern Japanese style with lots of wood paneling, a curvy gray-green ceiling and geometric carpet. Over the booths hang artsy Murano glass lamps in a ketchup-red and mustard-yellow squiggle pattern. The crowd is about half Japanese, but the restaurant isn't very busy. Most are sitting at a long bar that showcases big bottles of sake.

I order some of the warm rice wine. It's Ozeki sake, made in California. If sushi is the new pizza, then I guess sake is the new microbrew. American consumption of sake quadrupled from 1990 to 1998, with more consumers paying a premium for the good stuff. American sake producers like Ozeki are gaining respect, and the Australians are getting into the act as well.

I feel a little foolish drinking the house rice wine after looking over the selections at Kubo's extensive sake bar. If you are a sake connoisseur, you will no doubt be impressed with Kubo's list. Along with California and Australian rice wines, there are 12 Japanese sakes, most of which range from $7 to $18 for a large bottle. A 24-ounce bottle of Kubota Hejijyu, the very best Daiginjyo sake on the list, sells for $90.

Why so expensive? Daiginjyo sake is generally made of rare Yamada-Nishiki rice, grown in the high mountains, where a special flavor is imparted by the microclimate's extreme variations in daytime and nighttime temperatures. The rice is then milled to half or less of its original size. This combination of mountain rice and extreme milling evidently creates an incredibly smooth flavor.

I learned this at a Web site called eSake.com, which I wish I had visited before going to Kubo's sake bar. But it's not too late for you. The site is hosted by sake authority John Gauntner. If you want to learn about sake, just print out his glossary of styles and take it with you to Kubo's. Assuming, of course, that you can find Kubo's.

On my second visit, the mezzanine is a ghost ship. It is bitter cold, and the tables and chairs have been put away. The plants are wrapped in white cloth in anticipation of a freeze. One bush looks like the Venus de Milo; another is reminiscent of Rodin's Balzac in white. Kubo's is even emptier than the last time.

Knowing now that the restaurant is one of the last redoubts of real Japanese sushi in Houston, we order from the à la carte menu and skip the mayonnaise and hot sauce rolls. To start, we get yellowtail, toro (fatty tuna) and giant clam sashimi, tobiko (flying fish roe) topped with quail egg, salmon roe topped with quail egg and uni (sea urchin) sushi. I also order a bowl of chicken udon soup to fight off an impending cold. With my nose out of commission, I decide to skip the premium sake.

The chicken broth is dark and rich thanks to dried shiitake mushrooms. There are also some asparagus lengths and tiny green beans among the chicken chunks and rubbery slices of fish ball. The thick, ropy udon noodles are wonderfully chewy. I am so engrossed in my bowl that I barely notice the arrival of the sushi. But once the soup is finished, I feel positively restored.

The sashimi is arranged artfully, but not quite as dramatically as before. As it turns out, chef Kubo is off tonight. I miss his artistic mastery, mainly because it provides a pleasant way out of the usual sushi reviewer's dilemma. There are, after all, only so many ways to say "fresh." Let's just say the sashimi at Kubo's tasted really good.

The uni was another story. It didn't taste at all like I expected. I have eaten fresh sea urchin directly from the shell at a stall in the Mercado Central in Santiago, Chile. I remember the flavor and texture as sort of an iodine sherbet. But the uni at Kubo's had very little of that iodine taste and none of the firm texture. I think this is because it has been frozen. That's not a criticism. As George Alexander has explained in these pages, you want the seafood used in sushi to be frozen. In fact, it's imperative to killing harmful bacteria and parasites (see "Side Order of Worms," March 29, 2001). But freezing certainly changes the flavor of uni, turning the firm texture and mineral taste into an inconsequential sort of sea foam that melts innocently in your mouth.

We ask our waiter a few questions about the restaurant, and it turns out that he's actually the owner, Yoichi Ueno. "So why is the restaurant named Kubo's?" I ask.

"Because Kubo is the best sushi chef in Houston," the owner declares. Apparently the restaurant was founded as a showcase for Kubo's talents.

"Ask any sushi chef in town. Kubo is the best. He has been in Houston for 17 years and he taught everybody else. The sushi chefs at Miyako and Japon all look up to him," Ueno says.

Chef Kubo is the real deal all right -- he's a major-league, big-time, da' kine Japanese sushi chef. But is he the best in town? The owner thinks so, but that figures. G. Michael Freeman is pretty impressed with him too. But short of sampling all the raw fish in Houston, how do you decide these things? I take the owner's advice. I call the Miyako location out on Hillcroft and ask for the sushi chef. David Kim picks up the phone.

"How long have you been a sushi chef?" I ask him.

"Eight years."

"Have you ever heard of Kubo?" I want to know.

"Yeah, sure, he worked out here for a while."

"And what's his reputation?"

"In my opinion, he's the best sushi man in town," Kim says. So I guess that settles it.

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