Umami Dinners at Kata Robata Encourage Chef Collaboration

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"I stayed away from making any fish courses," joked chef Randy Evans after last night's Umami dinner at Kata Robata. "I left that to Hori."

To his left, Kata Robata's executive chef -- and recent James Beard semi-finalist for his work at the sushi restaurant -- simply laughed good-naturedly. This was Manabu Horiuchi's seventh time to host an Umami dinner at his restaurant, a series of collaborative multi-course dinners that showcase other chefs around town. And the entire point of the Umami dinners is just that: good-natured collaboration.

Horiuchi (or Hori-san, as he's known to his friends and customers), true to form, had made two astounding courses for the Umami dnner that featured sake-braised abalone and uni in one and miso-braised mackerel in another. Delicate spoonfuls of uni -- the bright orange sea urchin roe that is both buttery and briny at once -- perched atop fresh bamboo shoots so toothsome and earthy, my tablemates wondered why none of us had ever eaten them before.

We didn't have long to contemplate that question, as Hori-san's dish of Norwegian mackerel soon had us thinking new thoughts. Thoughts like Why don't you see more Norwegian mackerel on menus instead of its oilier Spanish cousin? and If I drink the broth, will anyone care?

Instead of drinking the broth, we simply asked for spoons so that none of the mahogany-colored miso would go to waste. It was par for the course in a dinner that offered one excellent dish after another.

The seven other courses were made by Hori-san's sous chef, Mark Gabriel Medina, and a team from Haven: executive chef Randy Evans and sous chef Jean-Philippe Gaston, who once worked as Hori's sous at Kata Robata. To see them all working together was to see a community of chefs that loves learning from each other as much as they love cooking with one another.

Each chef brought distinctly different perspectives to the dinner. Evans, for example, showcased his time spent as executive chef at Louisiana-influenced Brennan's with Gulf oysters bearing a ghost pepper-infused choupique caviar from Baton Rouge and a mignonette made with Louisiana cane sugar.

Gaston, meanwhile, made a highly modern interpretation of agedashi tofu that saw the traditional Japanese cubes topped with a delicate "snow" of downy smoked mozzarella. It's a technique Gaston learned from visiting chef Jakob Mielcke of Mielcke & Hurtigkarl in Copenhagen during another recent collaborative dinner, this one at Haven.

Yet despite these disparate influences, all nine courses flowed together effortlessly. Gaston joked that they didn't even have time to plan the interdependent courses: It just worked out that way.

Just as surprisingly streamlined were the idiosyncratic beverage pairings: a Jester King Wytchmaker Rye IPA with quail scotched eggs, sandwiched between a Kanbara "Bride of the Fox" sake and a Paraduxx Z red blend. Beer, sake, wine -- all were included on bar manager David Long Wong's pairing list and all were considered equally. This refusal to spotlight only one type of alcohol mirrors the Umami dinners' mission of taking all comers and welcoming influences from all corners.

Towards the end of the meal, one of my tablemates -- all of whom I met for the first time that night, a happy by-product of dining solo at dinners like these -- told me that this was her fourth Umami dinner with Hori, after experiencing previous Umami dinners with chefs Randy Rucker, Chris Leung and Jonathan Jones.

The fact that every one is unique is what encourages her and her husband to keep coming out to the meals: "I love the different perspectives that each new chef brings," she said.

Kata Robata plans to continue these collaborative Umami dinners every month, with the exception of April. Instead, the restaurant will be hosting a suckling pig throwdown in its parking lot. And if there's one thing Kata knows how to do other than sushi, it's roasting a pig. Call Kata Robata at 713-526-8858 for more information on the pig roast and upcoming Umami dinners.

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