Somehow, some improbable way, West Ave—that looming mixed use development on Westheimer in Upper Kirby—has managed to become home to some of the city's more interesting "fusion" cuisine projects in recent memory.
First it was Pondicheri in 2011, where chef Anita Jaisinghani has pioneered fast-casual Gulf Coast Indian dining to great acclaim. Then Saint Genevieve, where you can find chef Kevin Naderi's self-proclaimed "A.D.D. cuisine" that blends Middle Eastern, Mexican, Indian, and South American into an effortlessly chic menu. Now, it's Trenza—the new restaurant from Food Network Star runner-up Susie Jimenez that's offering Latin-Indian food—and Nara, which chef Donald Chang recently opened to showcase his two passions: Korean and Japanese cuisine.
I'll be honest; it's not what I expected when West Ave opened. With anchor stores such as Tootsie's and a focus on the River Oaks set—a group not known as adventurous diners, overall—I anticipated boring restaurants from established restaurateurs. And for a while, that's what we got: Ava Brasserie and Alto Pizzeria, both from the venerated Robert del Grande, were huge flops, closing in 2012. The slightly more ambitious Katsuya by Starck still proved as vacuous as one of Tootsie's mannequins, and closed this past summer.
I was shy, as were many people, about embracing Nara or Trenza when they first opened a few weeks ago. Nara was moving into the space that had already housed one pseudo-Japanese disaster—Los Angeles import Katsuya—and the move seemed ominous. I shouldn't have worried, however.
Sitting at the sushi bar at Nara last weekend, I was surprised to find myself excited. Chang's menu dipped in and out of Korean and Japanese favorites, weaving them together in interesting ways that were unexpected yet made sense: a bulgogi pot pie, a roll filled with gochujang-marinated pork, cucumber, and daikon radish sprouts. There was a pleasant buzz in the packed-out dining room; even if more people were there for the sushi (a safe bet in our sushi-loving city, especially as Chang is well-known for helming the popular Uptown Sushi) I had faith that a few Korean dishes would work their way onto some tables as well.
This hope was nurtured along by a smart, well-trained staff, whom I heard recommending Korean items such as the house-made kimchi and bibimbap all night long. The sushi chef I sat in front of was Korean; he and I gabbed about the best Korean barbecue in town (he recommends Bon Ga), our mutual love of the hwe (Korean sushi) at Dadami, and the differences between his hometown of Seoul and Houston (it's quieter here). He gently chided me for getting a bottle of sake to split with my friend instead of a bottle of soju; there are four varieties of the Korean distilled spirit—which both tastes like vodka and has a similar alcohol content—to choose from at Nara. It was heartening to see a cuisine that's long been appreciated in Houston, although never elevated in the same way as Japanese cuisine, the star treatment it deserves.
More Japanese-leaning dishes such as green tea-smoked salmon tucked into steamed buns with a schmear of wasabi cream sauce were fun, although I would have preferred to see a little texture between the slick fish and soft bun—the microgreens inside weren't enough to grab onto. And while the butter crab roll my dining partner chose didn't exactly have me over the moon, it was a delicate and thoughtful roll—filled with meaty strands of actual crab, a rarity when fake crab is considered the norm these days—that was endearing in its simplicity.
Far more enchanting, however, was a dish I recognized from Underbelly: shreds of meat piled atop Korean dumplings in a gochujang sauce. It's one my favorite dishes in Houston, so imagine my surprise when I found Nara's version an improvement over the original. Here, the meat is oxtail—not braised goat—and the freshly-made dumplings are the same chewy, slightly crispy, texturally fascinating things I first fell in love with. But the gochujang sauce had more in common with mole than simple red chile paste, all peanut and chocolate and dried chiles and fresh chiles humming together in harmony.
I was also pleased to see that despite the elegant decor and address, the prices at Nara were more in line with Pondicheri than its former tenant, the expensive Katsuya, meaning Nara isn't a luxury dining destination. It's the sort of place you could actually eat at on a semi-regular basis, working your way through the entire clever menu without having to take out a second mortgage. Sushi—served on pleasantly soft, room-temperature rice with a lovely vinegar tang—ranged from $2 to $2.50; the most expensive item I tried on the sushi menu was the amaebi, "sweet" (read: raw) shrimp that's served alongside a deep-fried shrimp head. It was $4. When I had amaebi at Sushi Jin in Memorial recently, it was $6.
In fact, the only price I'd haggle over at Nara is paying $6 for a small bowl of kimchi—"hand-pulled" in house or not. At any other Korean restaurant in town, you get a bowl of kimchi, along with other banchan, gratis as part of your meal. Paying for it just seems odd, no matter how good the stuff is.
On the other hand, perhaps this is the way of the future and I'm just one of those old fogeys who complains when modern Mexican or Tex-Mex restaurants such as Cuchara or La Fisheria make you pay for chips and salsa. I'm just glad Nara's here. I'm glad it's giving Korean cuisine the attention it deserves. Even if that means I have to pay for my kimchi.