On the Table

Upper Kirby Korean: Highs and Lows at Nara

How do chef Donald Chang’s lighter, more refined versions of Korean food stack up?

By Robb Walsh April 30, 2014 Published in the May 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

“Rice Cakes with Oxtail,” one of chef Donald Chang’s creations at Nara, were perfectly cooked, coated with red chile chojang sauce, and topped with soft shreds of braised meat.

We’d booked seats at the long communal dining table overlooking the kitchen at Nara, and were sampling course after course of Korean-born, Japanese-trained chef/owner Donald Chang’s cuisine. With two assistants, Chang himself stood at the table’s head, preparing each dish, as much a part of the show as the intricate dishes.

I watched as he meticulously plated three slices of silken tofu, fried crispy on the outside but still milky-soft in the center, topping each with caramelized kimchi and a strip of quick-cooked Berkshire pork belly, then finishing each off with a ball of curly green seaweed before artfully dripping orange chojang sauce across each white rectangular plate. Of the six courses we sampled that night, it was this one, called kimchi jae-yuk bokkum, that was most illuminating. 

The kimchi was enhanced by the pan cooking, the pork belly tasted something like Korean barbecue pork, and the crunchy exterior gave the soon tofu another dimension. Meanwhile, the presentation had all the zen gravitas of a modern Japanese sushi creation. As I tore into it, I began to understand what Chang was trying to accomplish at his new West Ave restaurant, the first upscale Korean-Japanese restaurant in town.

According to the chef, the goal at Nara is a lighter, more refined version of Korean food. Unfortunately, over the course of five meals here, I found that “refined” sometimes means “less flavorful than the original,” which was, of course, a disappointment. But I also found some of the most thrilling, innovative dishes in the city. 

Chang is also the co-owner of Uptown Sushi, the sushi bar of choice of Houston’s beautiful people, so you have to expect the drop-dead gorgeous to follow him wherever he goes. You also expect the latest in interior design, and Nara’s geometric lines, intriguing lighting, sensual materials, muted color scheme, and natural wood touches are as attractive as its crowd.  

The Monday-night tasting-menu dinner is a special event that must be booked in advance—prices range from $100 to $150 depending on the menu, which Chang changes according to season and availability. On the night of my visit, our six-course meal also featured a creamy miso clam chowder; buttery o-toro tuna from the fatty belly of the giant fish cut into sashimi slices and served with mushrooms; and a spectacular whole fried branzino with blistered shallots and heirloom tomatoes served in a glass dome filled with wood smoke—a molecular gastronomy–inspired touch that imparted a smoky aroma without a smoky flavor. 

The grand finale was lightly seared slices of A5 Miyazaki Wagyu strip steak over roasted shiitakes with bulgogi sauce and Meyer lemon beurre blanc. The melt-in-your-mouth beef was astonishing—the richest I have ever tasted. A poached Asian pear and green tea ice cream dessert was a deliciously light finish, although after the five preceding courses, I could barely eat half.  

It wasn’t just a good meal. It was a world-class dining experience with rare ingredients, like that A5 Wagyu, which Houstonians seldom encounter and which Chang flies in from Tokyo, where a 10-pound cut costs a cool $1,000. Try and book an evening when the beef is on the chef’s menu, as I can’t imagine a dinner at the communal table without it. 

While not every dish can be A5 Wagyu, I still wish all of Nara’s menu measured up to that Monday-night tasting.

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On another occasion it was date night, so I’d booked a spot at the Korean barbecue table. Things started well. My wife and I drank our first bottle of soju, and both of us were enthusiastic about the dry, nutty flavor of the cold, clear spirit, typically distilled from barley and rice. Twice as potent as sake, it does a brilliant job of cleansing the palate and tasted great with our nigiri yellowtail and “sushi with toppings”—excellent wild-catch tuna topped with cucumber kimchi and soy garlic tobiko

Korean barbecue typically begins with an assortment of half a dozen or so complimentary dishes called banchan—simple stuff like cold seaweed salad, potatoes in chili oil, pressed tofu, and all kinds of kimchi. At Nara, the banchan come in miniscule portions, served in small, three-chambered appetizer dishes. There was barely a forkful of any one item.

Nara’s staff is extremely attentive, especially at the barbecue table. Our waiter lit the gas fire under the elegant round stainless steel grate in front of us and offered to cook our meat, but after we watched him for a while, we took over the grilling duties. The most popular Korean barbecue meat is bulgogi, ribeye steak cut into extremely thin slices; kalbi, cut from the short rib, is a close second. Nara’s beef comes from premium Angus cattle, while its pork belly barbecue meat comes from Berkshire pigs. 

The top-quality meats, cut into dainty pieces, came with several citrus and soy marinades and mild chojang-based dipping sauces. Looking for a little flavor boost, we asked for jalapeños and garlic to cook on the grill—standard ingredients at most Korean barbecue tables.

Chang stopped by our table about the time the sliced peppers and garlic arrived. “How is everything?” he asked.

The garlic the kitchen had sent out was chopped too small to be cooked on the grill. “Well, everything except the garlic is pretty good,” I said, dropping some through the grate to demonstrate the problem. Chang and the waiter both looked uncomfortable. Generous portions of banchan and kimchi, and grilled garlic and jalapeño, are apparently not part of Nara’s “light, refined” concept of Korean barbecue. 

On another visit, another dolled-up Korean classic, bibimbap, also fell short of the original that many Houstonians have gotten to know at restaurants like Korea Garden on Long Point. The dish comes in a sizzling hot stone bowl that crisps up some of the rice—always the best part, and no exception here. But instead of the usual raw egg on top—which you’d normally mix into the rice, allowing the bowl to cook it as you go—the hash is topped with a fried quail egg, petite and delicate. While overall, the dish was tasty enough, once I hit the spicy-sweet, fermented red chile chojang sauce near the bottom, the chile paste was all I could taste, and I found myself wishing for more egg yolk to soak it all up.

But for those misses or near misses, there were plenty of hits as well. A luscious “Nara Roll,” stuffed with Black Canyon Angus bulgogi, crunchy pickled radish, spinach, carrot, and pieces of egg omelet, was a revelation. Who knew you could get steak on a sushi roll? Another Black Canyon ribeye dish, bulgogi bao, was even better: the thick pile of thin-shaved steak dressed with red onion shavings and micro greens served on a bun made for a stunning little sandwich. 

I also loved the “rice cakes with oxtail,” thick, cylindrical rice noodles that were perfectly cooked—crunchy-chewy on the outside, airy and tender inside, coated with fermented red chile chojang sauce, and topped with soft shreds of braised oxtail. It bore a striking resemblance to chef Chris Shepherd’s “Korean braised goat and dumplings” at Underbelly in Montrose, which isn’t surprising, as I hear the two chefs are trading notes on cooking garaetteok, as the rice cakes are called in Korean.

Actually, what Chang is trying to do at Nara isn’t so different from Shepherd’s Mutt City cuisine at Underbelly, and the city’s open-minded restaurant crowd will find much to love at Nara, especially if they order right. I’d recommend the restaurant for an elegant evening of sake, soju, or cocktails with sushi and bao. Or take your appreciation of Korean and Japanese food to the next level at one of Chang’s amazing Monday-night chef’s-table tastings. Just make sure that A5 Wagyu is on the menu. 

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