If it seems odd that two "fancy" Korean restaurants have opened just a few blocks away from each other in recent months, rest assured that there are enough differences between Nara—which opened first, at West Ave in December 2013—and the brand-new Dosi to mean there's room for both.
Dosi Restaurant + Soju Bar
2802 S. Shepherd Dr.
For starters, there's the decidedly more casual atmopshere at Dosi (despite the requisite valet parking and the silly styling of its full name, complete with requisite plus sign in lieu of a simple conjunction—a trend I blame on new generations' lack of exposure to Schoolhouse Rock as children). Whereas both restaurants greet their patrons with a busy bar that opens into the main dining room, the bar at Dosi features a wall of infused soju in glass vessels, giving it the same playfulness as the jars of infused tequila do at El Big Bad.
That soju is available in a variety of flavors, which you can order as a flight on a wooden board. It's a clever touch, though I found myself let down by all four of the infusions I tried: strawberry-vanilla tasted fake, like perfume, while the other three—red plum, pineapple, and peach—were almost too faint to work in the strong Korean distilled liquor, which overwhelmed the delicate fruits. I was prepared to be similarly disappointed by the modern Korean food, and then a bowl of kimchi hit the table. How wrong I was.
"I don't know what's in this," my friend said as he gobbled up piece after piece of the fermented cabbage, "but if someone told me this was 'Texan kimchi' I would know what they meant." The kimchi isn't described as Texan on the menu but did have an oddly familiar taste, sweet and earthy and vinegary with a spark of heat, almost like a barbecue sauce with a zing of jalapeño at the end. And while I'm normally loathe to pay for a bowl of kimchi at a Korean restaurant—an offense, to me, not dissimilar to paying for chips and salsa at at Tex-Mex restaurant—I found that here, as with the homemade kimchi at Nara, I didn't mind. At only $4, I'm happy to pony a few bucks up for quality cabbage.
The meal continued apace, with only one near-miss along the way. My favorite of the dishes was a a simple green onion pancake (pajeon, a Korean staple) topped with a line of tangy white anchovies and watercress, perked up even more with delicately grated lemon that had been cured in salt and sugar. Like the kimchi, it presented a wide range of flavors in each bite, and that striking citrus undertone was like a perfectly timed spotlight on-stage.
The pancake and our squid were both $8, though it was this latter dish that presented the one near-miss. Unlike the pancake and the kimchi, the squid—sautéed in garlic and gochujang—was surprisingly one note and a bit small in terms of portion size. The shredded perilla leaf on top was in too small a quantity to pack its noted Fernet-like punch of minty licorice flavor. Had it been more well-incoporated (perilla leaves enjoy a nice sautéing), the dish would have been excellent. But what a tiny, trifling issue overall—and especially in such a brand-new restaurant.
These three dishes functioned more as light appetizers, however, and my friend and I found ourselves still quite hungry—something you'll need to keep in mind if you have a big appetite, because Dosi is not necessarily the place for you. Dishes are served in thoughtfully portioned sizes, which is either fantastic or annoying as hell, depending on your personal restaurant desires. If you enjoy trying a bunch of different dishes in one sitting, or simply don't like eating large portions, this "tapas-style" trend now seen in every other new restuarant is probably a welcome one. Those who enjoy a more straightforward style of eating and want to leave full probably wonder where it all went wrong these days.
I can appreciate both arguments, but last week at Dosi, I was of the mind that appreciated trying so many fabulous bites in one go. We ordered the lamb collar, pork belly, and "dirty rice" to round out our meal, and I was surprised to see the lamb collar arrive looking like a kissing cousin to the Korean braised goat and dumplings at Underbelly and the oxtail rice cakes at Nara. I suppose there are endless varieties of meat Houston restaurants are willing to pair with this dish, though I found myself liking the lamb more than either the goat or the oxtail. Even better were the tteok, the rice cakes themselves: they had very little of the signature chewiness, but this was made up for by the airy, crispy texture—almost as if they'd been seared before serving. On the surface, the lamb collar may look like every other tteok dish in town, but on taste it manages to set itself impressively apart.
Dosi also does a good job of taking the relatively played-out pork belly and making it relevant again, simply through execution: the fat is perfectly rendered, the crunch of the aggressive char on top echoed by crushed peanuts, the schmalz of the pork belly offset by a tart sour plum sauce and refreshing little rounds of radish. It all comes together wonderfully. Ditto the "dirty rice," which is actually Korean rice porridge, juk, flavored with rich, musky, iron-heavy sundae (a.k.a. blood sausage). The dirty rice is served with so-called Korean "steam bread" that tastes and feel more like yeasty dinner rolls, the type served at a cozy Southern supper. And in another oh-so-Texas touch, they're spiked with jalapeño.
Credit these little Texan touches to the men in the kitchen, chef Jordan Asher and sous Daniel Toro. Both have long histories here in Houston, where Korean food is as easily accessible as Vietnamese or Tex-Mex and has influenced chefs of a certain age who came up eating the stuff in Houston in places like Spring Branch's Koreatown. While it was interesting to see chef Donald Chang take the Korean food of his own childhood and meld it with the Japanese cuisine he's better known for in Houston at Nara, it's equally intriguing to see what Asher and Toro will do with Dosi given time. I already see some of the modern sensibilities Asher picked up during a stint at Oxheart, especially in the plating and unexpected deconstructions, which isn't at all what I expected walking in blind last week. As long as Dosi has more of these clever surprises up its sleeve, I think it's poised to be a dark horse contender for one of the best new restaurants this year.