“I like that we’re not eating a massive piece of steak,” my husband said as he piled kimchi, pickled mushrooms, ssamjang paste, and slices of tender Wagyu beef—just seared on a hot rock moments before—onto a Korean sesame leaf.
Nara Sushi and Korean Kitchen
2800 Kirby Dr.
It was Wednesday evening, and we were dining with a couple of friends at chef Donald Chang’s Japanese-Korean restaurant, Nara, in the West Ave complex in Upper Kirby. The slices of Wagyu had been meticulously carved from a Tomahawk steak and laid out on plate for us to pick up with tongs and sear ourselves on the hot rock.
A Tomahawk long bone, charred at the edges with enough meat still clinging to it for it be eaten like a huge beef rib, had been delivered to our table on its own platter. Six small round dishes of kimchi and other pickled items—dishes known as banchan—were spread out before us, and though it was a little overwhelming to put all the different pieces together, the final product tasted incredible.
The American grass-fed meat was marbled and so, so tender. The kimchi—house-made by Chang’s Korean mother—was spicy with just the right note of fermented tang, adding a bright, cool crispness to each bite. Combined with sesame leaf and other pickled items (cucumbers, potatoes, mushrooms, and daikon radish), and a sweet bulgogi dipping sauce, each bite was rich with contrasting flavors.
It was exactly what I’d envisioned when Chang described his modern Korean concept to me late last year, when the restaurant had just opened. When I’d asked him what his idea of “modern Korean” was, he said that he wanted to take the food you could get in the Korean part of town, and elevate it with high quality meat and produce.
You won’t find that Wagyu Tomahawk steak anywhere in Houston's Korea Town, but you can now get it at Nara. It’s one of the shared plates that debuted on Chang’s newly streamlined menu, which rolled out earlier last week. A well organized, front-and-back, single page affair, the menu has been curated so that every single dish on the menu is a must-try.
The menu re-organization coincides with the addition of a revamped restaurant name: Nara Sushi and Korean Kitchen.
“When I opened Uptown Sushi, the name said everything there was to know. It was in Uptown Park, and we served sushi,” says Chang. With the opening of Nara, he says, the restaurant name wasn’t quite so self explanatory. “Nara? What kind of restaurant is it?” people would ask. The new tagline gives Nara a clear-cut identity.
The streamlined menu translates well in practice, too. My initial experience at Nara was one in which I didn’t know what to order (because the original menu was too extensive). This seemed to echo Robb Walsh's experiences when he visited Nara to review it for Houstonia's May issue. On my most recent visit, I couldn't decide what not to order (because I wanted to order everything).
There’s a new sashimi appetizer section, with modern, beautifully plated dishes like the peppercorn crusted tuna uzukuri: bright red squares of tuna sashimi served with a slivers of red and white onion, Asian pear, jalapeño, and a yuzu-peach ponzu sauce and garnished with edible flower petals and microgreen. The miso garlic jalapeño sauce, topped with chunks of sweet mango in the mango white tuna (made of albacore), was also fantastic.
The super tasty Momofuku-like Korean flap buns—fluffy, white, steamed buns made from scratch and stuffed with fillings like Berkshire pork collar and crisp kimchi—are also a must-order, as are Chang's signature dduk bokki fried Korean rice cakes from the “Comfort and Classics” section of the menu, only now they're served with strips of fajita-style Black Angus skirt steak in spicy-sweet red pepper gochujang sauce.
Crispy Korean fried chicken wings from the “Small Plates” portion of the menu hit my sweet spot with a gooey honey-garlic-gochujang sauce. It's a dish that is sure to invoke strong cravings, and I can imagine stopping by Nara for a plate of these alone.
But it’s the new “Texas-sized Sharing Plates”—including the above-mentioned Tomahawk Wagyu—that has me all in a tizzy and impatient to return. It's in that menu section I found the altogether spectacular jae yook bokkum: sauteed slices of spicy pork arranged atop a mound of mother Chang’s kimchi, and served with tempura-crisped silken tofu.
In my mental catalog of the best dishes I’ve ever tasted in Houston, Chang’s modern Korean version of the homey jae yook bokkum—a simple stir-fry of pork over kimchi with tofu—would make my Top 5. And I'm not alone. One of my dinner companions, who regularly eats at the best restaurants in town, verbalized what my gut was already telling me: "That has got to be one of the best dishes I’ve ever had in Houston."