I also liked the "Hot Rock Beef," six ounces of thin-sliced Angus sirloin or Kobe beef served raw with garlic slivers, jalapeño slices and fat shavings alongside a heated black rock about the size of a flattened softball. You grease the rock up with the fat shavings and then cook the beef yourself, as rare or well done as you like it.
Sage 400 is a not-too-serious sushi joint where people go to enjoy themselves. The atmosphere is a comfortable middle ground between snoozy old-time sushi joints and the strike-a-pose-in-your-Jimmy Choos preciousness of The Fish and Uptown Sushi.
When I reviewed Uptown Sushi ["Sushi as an Accessory," December 15, 2005], I recounted some sushi-eating wisdom from Noriko Takiguchi's blog "How to Eat Sushi." I was aghast to discover that in many ways, I wasn't doing it right. I have a lot of foodie friends who are very serious about the formalities of Japanese sushi bars.
My own attitude about sushi has changed dramatically, thanks to a video called "Japanese Sushi Documentary" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ruh0TJJopn8&NR) that a friend sent me.
The video is in Japanese with subtitles, and it starts with a lot of introductory information like "How to Enter the Sushi Bar." The elaborate graphics detail at exactly what angle your hand should lift the curtain over the doorway. I was reaching for pen and paper so I could take notes when the part about ordering endangered species started. That sounded odd. Then there was the part about sushi chefs having secrets you shouldn't ask about. There was a close-up of a chef villainously fingering a knife. That's when I realized I had been had.
The video is, in fact, a hilarious send-up of sushi rituals made by some young Japanese wiseasses. And as I watched the ever-more ridiculous instructions, I couldn't help but laugh at myself. When the video was over, I resolved to go eat some sushi -- and not to take the whole thing so damn seriously.
Sage 400 fit the bill perfectly. A sushi-loving friend and I went there for happy hour one Tuesday night not long ago. From 3 to 7 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and all day Sundays, hot sake and domestic beer are $2.50, Japanese beers are $3 and Sex in the City cocktails (Cosmopolitans and Appletinis) are $5. There are also several food specials.
The music was throbbing techno, but it wasn't too loud. The crowd was young, good-looking and dressed to find a date, and everybody seemed to be smiling and yucking it up. The ceiling of the restaurant is a series of swooping curves that are echoed in the shapes of the upholstered booths. The interior is stylishly decorated with black lacquered room dividers and chairs, wasabi-colored walls and muted carpeting.
The bar was packed and smoky, so we sat down at a table. We got some drinks and a bowl of edamame hummus, a soybean version of the Middle Eastern dip served with wonton wrappers cut into the shape of tortilla chips and deep-fried. The bean dip and Chinese chips were $5 during happy hour, and they were so good, we ordered another bowl. At five minutes to seven, I ordered another beer to take advantage of happy hour prices -- and my friend ordered two more Cosmos.
We ate some excellent yellowtail sashimi and fatty salmon sushi with our drinks. The broiled freshwater eel sushi was also wonderful. We capped off the order with some yellowtail carpaccio.
The yellowtail carpaccio at Sage 400 features six slices of hamachi sashimi lined up on a rectangular plate with a thin slice of jalapeño on top of each piece of fish and a dressing of yuzu soy sauce. Yuzu is a Japanese citrus fruit that tastes like a sweet lemon. The combination of citrus with soy and sashimi with chile peppers brings together the flavors of Latin American ceviche and Japanese sushi. If this is sounding familiar, it's because I have written about this dish before. [See "The Hamachi on Pluto," February 2, 2006].
"Yellowtail with jalapeño" was invented at Nobu in New York by Japanese-born and South American-trained master chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa. The dish has become as common in Houston sushi restaurants as a California roll. And the preparation has gotten equally mundane. The sashimi on the version served at Sage 400 was cut too thin, and the paper-thin fish was drowned in the yuzu sauce.
Veteran Houston sushi chef Teddy Wang is the head sushi man at Sage 400. He is doing a fine job of serving up the kind of sushi that Houston diners like. Most of it is top-notch. I love his Alaskan crab leg and his flying fish roe sushi. But like most Houston sushi chefs, Teddy is not a classicist.
Few sushi restaurants in Houston are run by people of Japanese ancestry. More often they are owned and operated by Korean- and Chinese-Americans, who use a lot more spices and take a lot more liberties with their outlandish rolls. Most of the employees I talked to at Sage 400 are of Chinese descent. Sage 400's wildest creation is the deep-fried Tex-Mex roll, with avocado, jalapeños, cream cheese and tempura shrimp.
The worst time to visit Sage 400 is at lunch. I sat at the sushi bar with a companion one afternoon and tried to make conversation with the sushi chef, a guy from northern China named Leo who looked like a young Mao Tse-Tung in a backwards plaid cap. He wasn't very talkative.
There were four lunch sushi specials available. I ordered the Chef's Special, which included salmon, Alaskan crab leg and escolar sushi, plus a spicy yellowtail roll. My lunch mate got the "C" selection, a shrimp tempura roll, a California roll and a spicy tuna roll. The rolls were long on the rice and short on the fish. There was very little to distinguish one bland and mushy concoction from the other. But that's what you get for ordering the lunch specials, I guess.
Sage 400 is the kind of sushi bar where you can sink back in your booth at happy hour with a cheap cocktail, a goofy sushi roll and some greasy wonton chips and have a good time. I highly recommend it, unless you are a hard-core sushi snob -- in which case I recommend you watch "Japanese Sushi Documentary."