I've learned a lot from my upstairs neighbor, Hide. For example, I've learned that his secret to perfect chicken karaage is marinating the pieces in sake and beer before battering them in plenty of cornstarch. I've learned that Japanese home-cooked comfort food incorporates global influences, with Hide showing off recipes for stuffed cabbage that looks a lot like golumpki and a beef stew that looks a lot like boeuf bourguignon (among others for Chinese and Vietnamese-inspired dishes). And I've learned that what Hide, who worked his way through college in Osaka cooking behind the grill at a robata, misses most about Japan isn't the sushi nor the ramen; it's the izakaya.
Traditional izakayas are oriented towards drinking—mostly beer, but also sake, whiskey, shochu and other adult beverages—and serve small dishes to accompany a festive night of boozing with friends. A meal at an izakaya starts off with lighter fare such as edamame before moving on to primal, grilled cuts of meat, and usually ending with starchy dishes like yakisoba to soak up the night's many rounds of beer. Meals are enjoyed slowly here, and in several courses; despite this, izakayas aren't staid and formal, but rather more rowdy and raucous and wholly suited to neighborhoods such as Houston's own Midtown, where just such an izakaya is opening soon.
Izakaya, the newest restaurant from the Azuma Group, is set to debut on August 1 at 318 Gray St., right next door to the newly-opened Fluff Bake Bar. Both are intent on shaking up the area's nightlife scene in their own ways, Fluff with plated desserts and wine/beer pairings in the evenings, Izakaya with late weekend hours extending until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays (though this is still considered "closing early" for izakayas everywhere from Tokyo to New York) and food that skews high-end rather than lowbrow, with a menu of creative dishes from partners/chefs Philippe Gaston and Manabu Horiuchi.
Sushi fans will of course know Horiuchi from his position as executive chef of Kata Robata (the Azuma Group's flagship restaurant in Upper Kirby), where he worked with Gaston several years ago; the two chefs became close, trading ideas, learning from one another, both sharing a love of modern Japanese food as filtered through a Gulf Coast lens. Gaston departed to open Cove, a critically acclaimed raw bar tucked inside of Haven, and though both restaurants closed prematurely, seafood-loving Houstonians were left craving more. They'll find it at Izakaya, where Gaston's own global influences are plainly evident in the "raw stuff" portion of the menu: New Zealand salmon tartare is served with white sturgeon caviar and roasted cauliflower mousse, while hamachi crudo keeps company alongside a dish of lamb heart tiradito.
A "from the grill" section of the menu covers the more traditional side of izakaya dining, offering skewers of grilled chicken gizzards, Portuguese octopus, house-made venison sausage and even A5 Wagyu beef served in 4-ounce portions. Along the way, diners can also indulge in small plates such as Japanese "grand mom style" pickled vegetables or large dishes such as a chicken fried steak that comes with kimchi-braised collard greens. You can even finish off your meal in style with yakisoba and an assortment of other noodle and rice dishes, including a bowl of cold soba noodles that sounds like just the ticket on a hot August night.
While Horiuchi will maintain his post at Kata Robata, Gaston will be in the kitchen at Izakaya full-time. Accompanying his nightly menu is a list of Japanese-inspired cocktails from bartender Claire Sprouse as well as a list of Japanese whiskeys, sakes and shochus. Izakaya's wine list, compiled by Antonio Gianola of Houston Wine Merchant, is heavy on the sort of whites, roses and sparkling wines that best complement Japanese cuisine, though we imagine many drinkers will have a hard time tearing themselves away from Sprouse's creative line-up of Izakaya highballs (we've got our eye on the Hokushu 12-year plus Topo Chico).
Reservations are strongly recommended when Izakaya opens, though the sprawling space—which seats 120 in the dining room that's decorated with colorful pop-art murals, an additional 70 in the verdant courtyard, 26 on the sidewalk and 26 more at the bar—should ensure that even drop-ins can be accommodated. For those such as Hide who are seeking a more casual robata-style atmosphere, there's always Izakaya-Wa, but for those interested in seeing what happens when two talented chefs raise the bar, Izakaya will be ready and waiting on August 1.
Izakaya, 318 Gray St., 713-527-8988, houstonizakaya.com