The kanpaccio, a word play on "carpaccio" and "kanpachi," or mature amberjack, is a dish that delights every taste bud. Rich slices of fish, shaped into rosettes, gather a bit of heat from small green slices of fresh Thai pepper before being bounced back and forth between the salinity of tobiko and soy and the sweet fruitiness of a fresh slice of orange and halved red grapes that were soaked in sake.
It's a signature dish for KUU, a Japanese fine-dining establishment in Gateway Memorial City that opened in February under the deft hand of chef Adison Lee. Lee trained under Nobuyuki "Nobu" Matsuhisa, a pioneer of modern Japanese cuisine, and it shows. Lee's sashimi dishes are similar in style to Nobu's, with garnishes and accoutrements meant to enhance their flavor and appearance.
For example, slices of salmon belly are carefully placed in staggered layers atop crushed ice and dabbed with little mounds of yuzukosho (a seasoned, fermented paste of yuzu rind, chile peppers and salt) and salmon roe, or ikura.
These meticulous preparations make KUU well worth a visit. Some of the fish is flown in from the southwestern Japanese island of Kyushu. Generous slabs of yellowtail sashimi were firm and radiated rich hues of pink that fanned out to a rose-petal red on the edges. KUU has an Achilles' heel, though: its cooked dishes. Three of the dishes that included naturally rich and succulent meat -- specifically duck breast, foie gras and pork belly -- had execution flaws.
Foie gras nigiri is found at a few other high-end Japanese restaurants in Houston, most notably Uchi. A slab of hot, seared foie is placed on top of a compact bed of rice, just as a slice of raw fish might be in traditional nigiri. Since the foie is hot and fatty, the rice soaks up the excess richness. At its most transcendent, foie gras has a taut, seared exterior and a creamy interior. At KUU, however, it was not piping hot, so all those great characteristics were lost.
Similarly, the pork belly on the "butaniku" nigiri, even when combined with a promising-sounding peach vinaigrette and micro-cilantro, fell short. The buttery, rich quality one expects from pork belly was absent. Instead, it was overcooked and tough.
It should be a crime to overcook duck breast. Ours was dry and tough and had an unpleasant livery quality. Also, it's annoying to be told, "Chef would like you to eat it with a little bit of everything all at once." "Everything," in this case, was compressed apple chunks, dehydrated scallop chips with a waffle pattern on the surface (which by themselves were quite tasty) and a wasabi beet reduction. If scooping all this stuff up at the same time is what's needed to make a dish taste good, perhaps Chef should have made a casserole.
One of the cooked dishes, though, broke the disappointing pattern. A concoction of Pacific prawns, with garlic chile sauce, kohlrabi and kale chips, was pure pleasure for the palate with its varying textures and spiciness. The prawns are heavily anointed with the chile sauce, but mild kohlrabi cubes prevented the heat level from becoming too much to bear. Although no item on the menu costs more than $20, KUU still ends up being pricey. Most dishes are small and delicate. A couple will need to order five or six to feel satisfied. Expect to rack up a $100 bill -- and that doesn't include drinks.
The kitchen has no problems getting orders out quickly. However, no attention is given to the pace at which dishes arrive at the table. On the second visit, every single one of the savory courses showed up at the same time. The meal became a game of checkers as we picked up dishes and shuffled them around so each diner could have her fair share. It was a distraction.
It's ideal to be able to enjoy a dish when it's fresh from the kitchen and, theoretically, at optimal temperature. However, when the table is overloaded, something is going to be tasted last.
The most expensive dish is a $20 cook-it-yourself beef served with garlic butter and ponzu on the side that's more novel than memorable. The beef is brought to the table in raw strips. The diner cooks them on a searingly hot stone nestled in rock salt.
The plain slices of beef seemed boring compared to the other dishes at KUU, which are beautifully plated from many different components. It's not that the beef itself wasn't of high quality. It's Akaushi, which comes from one of the four breeds of Wagyu cattle that originated in Japan and are known for their tenderness. There just wasn't much to the dish. It was beef and two condiments.
Besides that, it was hard to integrate cooking the meat on the hot rock since all the dishes hit the table simultaneously. It could have been fun if it had arrived by itself. Thanks to the overloaded table, it became another unwieldy inconvenience.
Add a makimono, or sushi roll, to the meal to help keep costs down. They're more filling than the other dishes. The truffle suzuki roll is especially delightful. Chopped yellowtail is partnered with striped bass, scallion, crunchy bits of panko, jalapeño, yuzu and tiny golden pearls of tobiko. A single bite delivers citrus, salt and crunch. The truffle element was beautifully restrained, more of a scent than a flavor.
Unlike many local Japanese restaurants, KUU adjusts its menu to reflect the seasons. For example, the Pumpkin V Cake is perfectly appropriate as an autumn dessert. The spongy cake is dotted across the top with cubes of brownie and green apple foam. Leaves of sorrel lend hues of red and green, and when the cake is swiped through a scalloped, decadent swath of cinnamon cream cheese sauce, the overall effect is one of a very lightly sweetened pumpkin cheesecake. At $9, it's a reasonably priced luxury.
Servers at KUU can be genuine and helpful, or they can be intrusive and annoying. One was too much of a salesman, and his upselling and frequent visits became grating. However, a different server was helpful, friendly and spot-on with her knowledge of both the dishes and the sake. After being asked to recommend a few sakes on the drier side, she brought tastes of two. Both met the criteria so well, it was tough to pick just one. The bartenders are fun and friendly. Hanging out at the bar with a glass of bubbly and a bowl of salted edamame makes for a good time.
KUU makes for an ideal date night and is a worthwhile jaunt, even if getting there means driving a few extra miles. It has a sleek and modern atmosphere, but there are a lot of natural wood elements to prevent the place from becoming too clubby. The execution, though, is still wobbly. Once the kitchen achieves consistency in its cooked dishes, there'll be nothing to stop KUU from ranking with other top Japanese restaurants in Houston.
Edamame $5 Butaniku sushi $5 Foie gras nigiri $9 Chile prawn $15 Truffle suzuki makimono $15 Hamachi sashimi $15 Sake toro sashimi $15 Kanpaccio $16 Crispy duck $16 Hot rock akaushi beef $20