Restaurant Review

Omakase Is Having a Moment in Houston

Kukuri and Roka Akor offer different experiences of the Japanese tradition. Read this before you spend extravagantly.

By Alice Levitt December 4, 2017 Published in the December 2017 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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One of Kukuri chef Shimao Ishikawa's incredible creations

Each time Shimao Ishikawa proffers a piece of sushi, it feels like an event of some weight, and not because he’s a showman. Diners sitting at the sushi bar at his new Washington Avenue restaurant, Kukuri, see that he personally slices each piece of fish before handing it right to them, earnestly making eye contact as he advises them to eat it with their hands, proud of every morsel.   

And he should be. Ishikawa earned a Michelin star at his last restaurant, New York’s Jewel Bako. Depending on your preferences, you may consider it a help or a hindrance that Ishikawa’s English is limited, his dishes served with a brief identification in Japanese, or, upon request, broken English. But even if your interaction is largely non-verbal, the $170 omakase investment means that for two or three hours—depending on your capacity—he is your friend, your otosama (respected father), your culinary confessor.

It’s not easy to find your way here. The restaurant, in the same building as Platypus Brewing and TacoDeli, is nearly unmarked. Once you do locate the hand-dyed cloth flag advertising the restaurant’s logo, you’ll pass through the doors from the host stand into a lofty, warehouse-like space decorated with giant scrolls of sumi-e (Japanese brush painting) that match the handmade menus. The name, which honors Shinto goddess Kukurihime, can alternately mean “bundling tightly” or “distinct and clear.”

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A sushi chef works his magic

Distinctive is more like it. The 20-sake list is a thing of beauty, ranging from a $25 bottle of Makiri Junmai Ginjo to hard-to-find Dassai Beyond for $1,400. I prefer a glass of one of Kyoto Brewing Company’s ales; the yuzu-flavored variety is bright and effervescent, while one brewed with black beans retains the suggested flavor, as well as a pleasant roundness reminiscent of cream soda.

Whatever you drink, it’s best to avoid anything overbearing. Ishakawa’s cuisine is one of stoic austerity, in quality if not quantity. We learned the hard way that he will just keep feeding you until you cry “uncle.”

On-menu dishes include tempura with a perfectly coral-like exterior, full of nooks and crannies; buttery homemade tofu dressed in seaweed and sesame; jellyfish in a ring of cucumber; and a dish that translates to “Gift from a Mountain Village,” comprising five tiny bowls filled with delicacies like cucumber and eel in sweet egg sauce, caramelized burdock, and apple stewed in wine. These tell the tale of food so precious, it must have been crafted by kodama—Japanese wood-dwelling spirits. Made by the pair of chefs in the kitchen, such offerings do feature in the many courses that make up Ishikawa’s omakase. But more often than not, the two are left twiddling their thumbs. Guests come for Ishikawa’s raw talent.

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The action happens at Kukuri's bar.

And he doesn’t disappoint. While many high-level sushi chefs are dogmatic about getting their fish from Japan, Ishikawa is interested in the differences between what emerges from different bodies of water, a sort of “merroir.” The night we visited, he offered up a tasting of three uni served with freshly grated wasabi. The first of the shellfish, from California, was the sweetest, followed by a more savory dark, creviced blob from Japan, and a sample from Mexico that tasted of indulgent crab in butter.

The whole experience is an education. I never would’ve guessed, for example, that one of the best o-toros (extra-fatty tunas, as opposed to chu-toro, or regular-fatty) I’d ever taste would come from Spain. I also discovered black sea perch among the many exotic fish Ishikawa sliced lengthwise before blow-torching, imparting a hint of caramelized flavor.

In the end, the number of fish I tried reached 22. And I’m fairly certain that in the blur of fins and scales, I missed some. Not all were to my taste—one of the varieties of flounder, I found too chewy, for example—but most were. The meal wrapped with miso soup, dotted with tiny shimeji mushrooms, a filling insult to the injury of course after delicious course of fish. I would have been fine to skip the store-bought mochi ice cream, too. But flavors included green tea, plum and my favorite, black sesame, topped with a petite cured plum. How could I say no and break my otosama’s heart?

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A wagyu flat iron steak at Roka Akor

Kukuri’s isn’t the only extravagant new omakase in town, either. When Roka Akor opened last summer, its home in 40-story luxury tower 2929 Weslayan was as much the attraction as the restaurant itself. For better or for worse, a chic address paired with striking, if slightly ’80s, design brings in the River Oaks crowd (or the River Oaks–aspirant crowd).

In contrast to Kukuri and its ethereal stillness, Roka Akor can feel a bit like an episode of Sex and the City. Instead of Cosmos, though, the bar turns out serious craft cocktails—even the ginger ale is made in-house, from homemade ginger beer. It’s great plain or combined with fresh lime and Gray’s Peak vodka in the Roka Mule.

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Roka Akur's pork belly with robata-kissed char

The Roka Akor chain originates in Scottsdale—ours is the fifth link—and the menu, a deft combination of sushi and high-quality meat grilled on a traditional robata, was designed by corporate chef Ce Bian. If you’re seeking raw fish, I recommend going à la carte and getting one-of-a-kind dishes like the tuna tasting, featuring three different grades of fattiness displayed in an ice-filled box, with marigolds and gold leaf decorating slices of fish laid out on shiso leaves. Nothing can make you feel quite as special—unless you go for the omakase, a relative steal at $128.

Kukuri requires a reservation for its omakase; Roka doesn’t. And while the former only does tastings at the bar, Roka invites diners to enjoy it anywhere in the expansive restaurant. But you will leave just as full. Service was exceedingly kind and helpful, especially given the fact that there was an allergy in our party. When a runner accidentally put an offending dish on the table, we were rewarded with an A5 wagyu steak alongside the mushroom-topped Snake River Farms wagyu flat iron we’d ordered.

While both dishes come from the same breed of cow, one, the A5, was imported from Japan; the other hails from Idaho. Try them side by side, and you’ll realize there really is a significant difference between the two. The A5 has the highest grade of cutability and marbling in the wagyu grading system (a scale on which the lower-grade flat iron hasn’t been measured). After experiencing the meat-butter sensation of A5 grilled on charcoal, it’s easy to see how one might wander into the realm of market price for the real deal.

Nevertheless, no one would complain about the American-raised steak. It went perfectly with an order of crispy Brussels sprouts in mustard sauce with bonito flakes, and a Japanese mushroom rice hot pot, a risotto-like side which servers prepare tableside, and which should be renamed to include the word “truffle,” as that’s the creamy porridge’s greatest asset.

There is no question that Chinese-born, London-bred Bian has created a cuisine that is unapologetically American. While the ingredients are Japanese, their preparations have little to do with the traditional foods that inspire them. And for big-flavor-addicted Americans like me, that’s more than fine.

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A tataki of shaved prime beef

Where Ishikawa dresses his raw morsels in little more than a swipe of wasabi or swab of soy, at Roka, the uncooked dishes come mostly in the form of tatakis—thinly sliced, sauce-dressed meat or fish—which are highlighted in composed mini dishes. The best, rolls of shaved prime beef, are served in a truffle jus that’s at once earthy and tangy, topped in pickled daikon and shaved truffle. Another hit is escolar wrapped around tiny pieces of white asparagus dressed in yuzu and pesto.

The rule to follow at Roka is this: the heavier, the better. My single favorite plate of the omakase menu, which is also available à la carte, was pork belly cooked to pillowy softness inside, with a crisp robata-kissed char outside. That would be recommendation enough on its own, but it comes with tarragon miso sauce, essentially an East Asian take on Béarnaise, and pickled breakfast radishes to cut through the fatty proceedings.

All this makes it impossible to really compare the two hottest omakases in town. Both are a splurge to remember. If you’re seeking a personal, authentically Japanese experience, head to Kukuri. If you want to live high on the (robata-grilled) hog, Roka Akor is more than worthy of your earnings.

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