The Scoop Houston: Kata Robata
It is August in Houston, Texas. For some, this statement may evoke feelings of dread, as this is the peak of our brutal summer heat. On top of that, kids are forced to go back to school, resulting in back-to-school sales that cause every mall in Houston, and the streets surrounding them, to become the bane of our existence. Trust me, I’m right there with you—I work next to the Galleria. But I can put these feelings aside, because August brings something magical and delicious: Houston Restaurant Weeks.
If you are unfamiliar with the “Restaurant Week” concept, it is basically a week to celebrate the fine dining in your city—at much cheaper prices. The participating restaurants develop a special pre-fixed three or four course menu to highlight their culinary style. Typically, there is a set price for lunch, brunch, and dinner, significantly under the price that most restaurants that participate would charge you. (Think 35 dollars for a three course meal at a steakhouse that normally charges 40 bucks a pop for a filet.)
In Houston, this has become such a celebrated event that it was extended to 4 glorious weeks. Not only do you get to explore our vast restaurant scene, but you get to help out a great cause. Portions of each HRW meal are given directly to the Houston Food Bank to help families in need, which is pretty cool if you ask me. Needless to say, I love taking part in this event. I map out my plan of attack and adjust my budget (AKA, bring my lunch to work 4 days a week instead of 0 and eat at home every other night of the week) so I can enjoy as many HRW menus as my wallet will allow.
So far, Kata Robata, a revolutionary modern Japanese sushi + grill led by James Beard nominated Executive Chef Manabu “Hori” Horiuchi, has taken the reins as my favorite Houston Restaurant Weeks menu. I had dined here once before and was incredibly impressed with the fresh local and international ingredients and innovative Japanese fare on their regular menu, so once the HRW restaurant list was published, I knew this would be at the top of my list.
My boyfriend, Ryan, and I made reservations just to be safe, but when we arrived at 6 PM on a Sunday evening, it was apparent that we didn’t need them. Since we decided this would be a date night, we dressed up, but it was not necessary. For a high-end modern Japanese sushi restaurant, the attire of most patrons was casual and trendy and the crowd ranged from a few girlfriends stopping in for a quick bite of sushi, to a young couple exploring the menu with their incredibly well-behaved baby (thank goodness because we were seated right next to them) with a very developed palate for refined food.
We ordered some Kirin and hot sake and got to deciding what we were going to order. Even though we came for the HRW menu, I had to start the night off with my favorite sushi roll in the city thus far: The Rising Sun. These eight perfect melt-in-your-mouth pieces of sushi have a center of fresh yellowtail and creamy avocado, each with a plump cut of peppercorn tuna perched on top, covered in—wait for it—a decadent truffle vinaigrette. (You might know how I feel about my truffles.) It is subtle, but just strong enough to transcend the tuna into buttery satisfaction. With the added texture and heat of the peppercorns, this roll is just about perfect. I don’t think I will be sharing next time.
With that out of the way, we received the first of four courses from the Houston Restaurant Week Menu. Between edamame vichyssoise (cold soup), and Asari miso soup, we both went for the latter, hotter soup option. What makes this soup different, and better in my opinion, than a traditional Japanese miso soup are the Asari, or clams, that peek out of the cloudy broth. The clams, teamed up with pieces of wakame (seaweed), brought additional briny flavors and playful textures to an otherwise simple soup.
After slurping down every last drop, we received our second courses. We opted to try different dishes so we could get the most out of our meal. Sharing is caring. I went for the Hawaiian Amberjack sashimi, expertly shaved thin by Chef Hori-san or one of his trained sushi chefs. The sashimi was perfectly fanned out on the plate so that each piece had equal opportunity to invite my chopstick to choose it next. The pink slices of fish were ever-so-lightly seasoned and brightened up by delicate drizzles of oil, lime juice, and finely chopped chives, maintaining the amberjack’s sweet flavor as the highlight of the dish. The sashimi was accompanied by marinated foie gras topped with crumbles of hazelnut. I am personally picky about foie gras and typically enjoy it very seared, so this was an unusual flavor and texture combination for me; however my boyfriend seemed to enjoy it.
The fish was refreshing and I will give credit to the plate as a whole, as it was beyond creative and presented beautifully, but Ryan’s second course was my favorite dish of the night. Simply put, it was an elevated Japanese bacon salad. So, I’m all in. A few thin slices of grilled pork belly and chunks of bittersweet papaya sat on top of a bed of arugula, mixed with micro cilantro and cabbage and marinated in a citrus soy vinaigrette. Once you get a bite with the garlic chili oil and crushed peanuts generously sprinkled across the salad, the umami becomes unreal. We found the papaya to be a little bitter and found ourselves wishing it was mango, or at least a little sweeter, but it did not take away from our enjoyment of the dish whatsoever. I think this was obvious in our desperate fight to side-scoop up the remaining bits of garlic-chili oil-peanut clusters with our chopsticks before the waitress came to replace the empty plate with our next course.
It was hard to choose which of our main courses we liked better. There were elements of each that stood out and left us wanting more. I chose a plate of flawlessly seared U-10 scallops shadowed by a subtle mustard foam, with broccolini and marinated shiitake, oyster, and enoki mushrooms. The mushrooms were sweet, salty and full of flavor making them tasty enough for Ryan, who usually hates mushrooms, to go back for seconds and thirds. If this wasn’t grand enough, on the side was a boat of rich and creamy shrimp mac and cheese with a crunchy panko topping. Ryan decided on grilled Kobe beef short ribs that were so tender they just about melted in your mouth. The decadent, rich pieces of meat were served skewered over a mix of grilled summer vegetables, including green beans, zucchini and shishito peppers, and charred rice balls.
We wrapped up dinner with the fourth and final course: a warm, blueberry cake with a bread pudding-like consistency, paired with a quenelle of refreshing lemon, earl grey ice cream. This probably isn’t a dessert you would expect to find at a traditional Japanese restaurant, but if I learned anything from this dining experience, Kata Robata is way past traditional. With its ever-changing menu and a chef who is truly gifted in his craft, you never know what new, creative dishes might show up. Regardless, you should probably make a reservation ASAP and prepare to have your mind blown.