I don't like to throw around words like "authenticity" too much. Not only does it reliably raise someone's ire, I don't necessarily think it matters. As long as food tastes good, I consider it a success. After all, just a difference in the water can make a particular specialty taste different from city to city.
But Japanese food has been an interesting case in Houston, a city which seems to run largely on mayonnaise-laden, blow-torched American-style sushi rolls. There are strongholds of more traditional (mostly homestyle) Japanese fare such as Nippon and Café Kubo's, but with a relatively small Japanese population, there simply isn't the same demand for that as there is for, say, Punjabi cuisine that will remind ex-pats of home. It was an exciting surprise, then, to find myself one of the few non-Japanese present during a packed lunch service today at brand-new Zen Japanese Izakaya on South Shepherd in Montrose.
The menu is far too large to do proper justice to it during a single lunch, especially because both the large dinner menu and smaller but different lunch menu are available at lunchtime. But despite kinks in service (my server visibly trembled when she took our order, then forgot an item), it's clear this one is going to be a winner.
I'm a stickler about properly cooked rice and Zen has it. The chirashi, served with personably salty miso soup and a salad dressed with orange and sesame, is excellent proof thereof. A pile of sticky but sturdy grains is dressed in soy-based sauce and covered in a mix of admirably fresh seafood as well as microgreens, cherry tomatoes, shiso leaves, Asian pear and chiles, to name just some of the uncommonly varied confetti of toppings.
One dining partner was thinking of trying the unagi don, but we decided to sample the eel in the form of the Hot Mom roll instead. It's one of the overwhelmingly large roster of sushi offerings that span from the austere to the, well, mayo-topped. The Hot Mom is somewhere in between with a filling of deep-fried eel and Fuji apple covered in chopped yellowtail, caviar and eel sauce.
At dinner, the main attraction is a multi-course kaiseki-style tasting that must be ordered at least a day in advance. I was able to preview some of the same delicate beauty in the form of Zen's "signature lunch," the wagyu shokado bento. For $19, the lunch contains no fewer than 10 different dishes. It begins with soup and ends with a choice of ice cream (vanilla, strawberry, red bean or green tea). Four pieces of sushi included two dictionary-definition pieces of tuna nigiri, but also a strangely likable pair of deep-fried pieces of salmon roll in eel sauce.
The wagyu teriyaki was light on pink, juicy beef and heavier on beautifully prepared veggies, especially the pieces of eggplant. Other highlights included slices of sweet potato simmered in orange juice, sweet rolled omelet (tamago) and mushroom-filled, dashi-flavored egg custard, chawanmushi.
And now, just writing about the meal, I'm seriously considering returning for round two tonight—perhaps grilled salmon served in an apple or a plate of omu-rice. If it's not tonight, it will certainly be soon.