What do you get when you cross an Austrian-Persian restaurateur with a Filipino chef in a pan-Asian Houston restaurant? A new Tarakaan, with some serious culinary cred. At the end of March, new chef Rob Frias debuted his menu at the Midtown spot. In February, operator Piran Esfahani announced that he was discontinuing the food service that had been a part of the restaurant since its debut last fall. But he now says that the decision was due to pressure from investors.
In March, Esfahani enlisted Frias, owner of Eminent Events & Catering, to do a pop-up brunch at the restaurant. "I couldn't believe how smooth it was," Esfahani recalls. Though the old menu, from Micah Rideout, now of Kuu, "was not customer friendly," the owner felt that Tarakaan's visual virtues deserved excellent food to match. His friends and family agreed. In four days, Frias created a menu.
Though Frias grew up in the Philippines, his East Asian menu is heavily influenced by Japan and Korea but grounded in French technique. Sound familiar? Frias was chef de cuisine at Donald Chang's upscale Nara Sushi & Korean Kitchen. On a sushi plate, options includes fusion dishes such as seared escolar covered in fried shallots and garlic with eel sauce. Green tea smoked salmon, with tea leaves seared to the exterior, appears as sashimi or in the NYC roll, where it's paired with cream cheese, avocado, radish sprouts, kanikama, cucumber, bacon-caper aioli and bagel crumble.
Other rolls are equally ambitious. The Cherry Blossom pairs spicy salmon with truffle-lavender cream cheese, cherry compôte and shiso in a wrapper of shaggy-cut kanikama. The extra-fancy Tarakaan roll combines tempura lobster with beef tenderloin, cucumber, soy tobiko, tamago, pickled daikon and avocado, all topped with mayo, house gochujang and eel sauce.
And not everything on the sushi menu is for seafood lovers. There's playfully trashy spam musubi and a take on bacon-and-eggs featuring bourbon-braised pork belly served with tobiko (the eggs) and a pineapple-habanero glaze.
Pork belly also appears braised then fried crisp inside fluffy bao buns made by executive pastry chef and Cordon Bleu London grad Cait Laub. Fans of the tteokbokki and bibimbap at Nara will find both at Tarakaan. The new iteration of the rice cakes includes short rib in place of oxtails, while the amped-up bibimbap tosses together Korean fried chicken, a 63-degree egg and veggies with curried Malaysian-style rice. According to Frias, the miso-glazed 1855 Beef short rib has proven especially popular. The mirin-braised beef might be part of the appeal, but customers are also loving the decadently creamy cauliflower purée.
Meals end with Laub's Misfortune Cookies, flavored versions of the Chinatown classic filled with darker takes on classic fortunes. She's also offering plated desserts including a poached Asian pear with green tea mousse and blueberry-pepper jam.
Esfahani and Frias agree that the restaurant seems to be building a new following from scratch, with most diners admitted first-timers. "The wounds weren't that deep, at least in my eyes," says Frias. "To me, it's about the food and service." The same can be said of Tarakaan.