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Lobster ramen

My dining partner wasn’t sure this was the right place. Who could blame her? The trend in Japanese dining in Houston is small, jewel-like plates and stylized décor. Ka Sushi, on the other hand, looks like what it is: a sushi-and-whiskey bar in a strip mall.

Perhaps that is putting some diners off. Or maybe Ka, which should be attracting fans of Uchi and Kata Robata with its culinary fireworks, is simply too new. Whatever the case, for those in the know, there are quiet evenings to be had at the new sushi spot, which will likely change as word spreads. And that, unfortunately, could create issues, as even when business is slow, service tends toward the disinterested.

It’s hard to worry about that, though, when you begin happy hour with a Miss Piggy roll discounted to $8. I’m usually skeptical of cooked sushi fillings, especially ones with no relation to the sea, but I was enthusiastically won over by rice surrounding not just meltingly tender pork belly, but belly fried in a crispy panko coating. Crunchy daikon and pickled apple (a favorite ingredient at Ka) smashed through the fat, while miso added a hint of umami, as did a reservoir of peanut-chile sauce on the side.

Pair that with the light burn of the Hangover Cure cocktail, a combo of whiskey, Sriracha and syrup flavored with pho seasonings, in this case likably heavy on the star anise and cloves. Or just get a whiskey on the rocks—Ka’s bar is heavily populated with selections from around the world, with a focus on Japan, and its selection merits as much consideration as its rolls.

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Even the veggie rolls here are innovative—I couldn’t get enough of one filled with ginger-apple slaw and showered in fried sweet potato strings—but chef-owner Pak Tsui’s best ideas mostly live on his menu of cold dishes, a surprise from the man who brought Houston the stuffed-bun goodness of Fat Bao.

The shiso salmon was composed of five tiny parcels of green apple matchsticks wrapped in thin slices of fish, topped with a single pickled cherry and brightly flavored with shiso, raspberry Dijon and a smattering of saffron-tinged salt. The truffle snapper, meanwhile, was just what it sounded like, slivers of fish that radiate an earthy whisper of truffle, balanced by sweet orange marmalade and salty, soy-infused tobiko.

Sadly, the cold dish I most wanted to love didn’t, well, pop. And with a name like Hamachi Pop, it probably should have. While the smoked yellowtail found a fun foil in a candied jalapeño on top, the dish’s puckery ponzu killed the crackle of the green apple Pop Rocks showered over the plate.

This was one of only two misses across three visits to Ka, with the other owed to an equally specific quibble. As much as I enjoyed the almost stew-like thickness of the coconut-curry duck-broth ramen filled with braised oxtail, a poached egg and corn, the noodles were starchy with overcooking.

Other hot dishes made up for those blips. Skewers, such as a sticky but not over-sweet yakitori, were served with garlic chips and capelin roe, resulting in an elegantly composed dish instead of a meat stick on a plate. Fried snacks shined, too. A bowl of Brussels sprouts was tangy and sweet with balsamic, with fried leeks adding to the crunch of the sprouts’ own leaves. And the nuggets of chicken karaage were among the best I’ve had in Houston—moist, a bit spicy thanks to a togarashi-mayo dip, and mixed with fried basil leaves. 

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But there are few treats as indulgent as cooking part of your dinner yourself on a hot rock. Besides the stone, safely stored in a wood tray, the dish was presented with two harmless but uninspiring sauces and a small cup of cubed butter. It melted quickly on the black slab, and cooked the meat quickly, too. Our slices of A5-grade Wagyu seared to something that could be described as beef butter after about 15 seconds on each side.

Desserts at Ka are few, but innovative in their own right. Black rice pudding was served  in the style of bread pudding, along with a scoop of black sesame ice cream and coconut whipped cream. My favorite way to end a meal at Ka, though, was the dessert simply described as “breakfast.” What looked like a face made of eggs and bacon was only part trompe l’oeil. That smile was indeed a candied bacon strip, while the yolk-like eyes were actually scoops of sweet potato, artfully arranged on a base of coconut soufflé served sizzling in a small skillet.

Even on those evenings when I left Ka without a taste of this happy dish, the rest of the whimsical cuisine had me smiling.

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