Restaurant Review

Do These Celebrity-Backed Restaurants Have What It Takes?

Encountering lofty expectations at Nobu and International Smoke.

By Timothy Malcolm September 21, 2018 Published in the October 2018 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Image: Jenn Duncan

When the gold elevator doors open, welcoming you to the second-floor Galleria dining area at Nobu, you’re bound to feel goose bumps. The restaurant is downright revered, with dozens of locations worldwide in spots like Ibiza and Monte Carlo, the result of a 25-year partnership between globally renowned sushi chef Nobu Matsuhisa and Hollywood legend Robert De Niro. Kanye West even referenced it in a song, “See Me Now,” crowing that he “might walk into Nobu with no shoes.” And we were here, ready to dine on flawless fare and feel like royalty.

My companion and I walked through this seductive, dimly lit white cedar sanctuary, took a seat, ordered a pot of sake, and began to peruse the menu of Japanese–South American fusion dishes. We decided to order à la carte–style from three sections of the expansive dinner menu: the Classic portion, which lists the chef’s greatest hits; the Now section, which features more modern items; and the sushi and sashimi menu.

Delectable: Nobu's wagyu gyoza

Image: Jenn Duncan

The Classics were a mixed bag. The chef’s black cod miso, introduced to American diners in the mid-’90s, remains perfection. The flaky, buttery cod marinated in the sweet miso is umami heaven. The shrimp tempura, too, held up. It came with a salty, citrusy butter ponzu sauce made with dashi and grapefruit-tart yuzu fruit. I could munch on these crunchy fried prawns all night long.

Not as successful was the tiradito—whitefish in a garlicky yuzu sauce—which was overwhelmed by the dry rocoto peppers piled on top. The famous yellowtail sashimi came up short, too. While he may have popularized it, Chef Nobu is certainly no longer alone in serving thin slivers of raw, mild fish with simple jalapeño slices over ponzu sauce. The dish’s only unexpected element was a distracting pile of cilantro. It needed something else. In Houston there are many more interesting versions of the same plate—the ones at Kata Robata and Roka Akor come to mind.

The sushi—salmon and whitefish nigiri—was straightforward, but there was plenty of inventiveness to be found on the Nobu Now menu. A Chilean sea bass cooked in a black-truffle rice wine, finished with a soy butter, was transcendent. And a hearts of palm salad with jalapeño dressing, reminiscent of picnic-perfect coleslaw, made for a fitting prelude to the wagyu gyoza, four delicate dumplings packed with buttery beef that must have been left in the smoker overnight. “Yes, this is Texas,” I thought.

Nobu's sanctuary-like dining room

Image: Jenn Duncan

As we devoured the gyoza, I noticed a table of teenagers hanging out nearby, and a patron in T-shirt and shorts at the sushi counter. This was far from the scene I’d expected, in a good way—a nice balance to the excellent, but formal, service. The crowd felt very Houston.

As we waited for the check, I found myself—if not full, content. Chef Nobu’s newer offerings had mostly outshined the classics, but overall we’d had a great experience, I decided, polishing off the last of the sake. Then the check arrived. The bill—for dinner for two, with drinks—was an eye-popping $500.

Two weeks later I visited Nobu for tanoshi hour, also known as happy hour, and that I can heartily recommend. Order the black cod miso; the superb salmon with dry miso; a refreshing cucumber salad with seaweed and soy sauce; and the meltingly good prime beef skewers. Pair those with one of four well-priced specialty cocktails—I liked the sidecar, made with smooth Iwai Japanese whiskey, orange liqueur, and yuzu juice—or a well-priced beer or glass of wine. You’ll still get to feel like royalty, and experience Chef Nobu’s ingenuity, past and present. And you won’t be shocked by the check.

Chef E.J. Miller incorporates local elements into the menu.

Image: Jenn Duncan

Even before opening its doors this July, International Smoke had already garnered negative Yelp reviews here in Houston, thanks to Rockets fans who’d assigned it zero- and one-star ratings based solely on the fact that its co-owner, lifestyle blogger Ayesha Curry, is married to Golden State Warrior Stephen Curry. That was unfair, of course. But it speaks to the anticipation that had built up around this collaboration between Curry and celebrity chef Michael Mina, who have another, well-received location in San Francisco, with two others set to open in California and Florida.

At the start of my meal here, my server dutifully informed me that the restaurant explores the many ways smoke is utilized in cuisines across the world. The menu explains the origins of each dish, which is helpful, but I found myself also wishing it would identify which items best delivered the smoke. The pork ribs, a St. Louis cut slathered in sesame-gochujang sauce, lacked it, as did the salmon, a simple preparation that instead tasted slightly burnt.

Hawaiian "instant bacon" at International Smoke

Image: Jenn Duncan

I asked my server which dish would supply the most bang for my buck in the smoke department, and she recommended the Hawaiian “instant bacon.” The dish arrived, a cloud of gray escaping from underneath its glass lid to reveal two snugly packed pork buns. The pork belly, coated in a sticky-sweet teriyaki and decorated with diced pineapples, was juicy and delicious, but after finishing it, I realized that the smoke was nowhere to be found after it wafted away. 

The smoked burrata fairly sings.

Image: Jenn Duncan

Other dishes live up to the restaurant’s name, including the wagyu shaking beef, delivered to the table in a scorching skillet, served with lettuce wraps, and attention-grabbingly succulent. Smoke also sings in the burrata plate, the creamy cheese spilling over a chorus of prosciutto, sweet corn, and peaches.

In the end, though, I forgot about the smoke and simply enjoyed the food for what it was. My favorite bite was Curry’s staple dish, the curry cornbread, spicy country comfort topped by a generous glob of yellow, spiced butter. I also loved the redfish on the half shell served with garlic fried rice, a great example of E.J. Miller, executive chef of the Houston location, flexing his muscles on Texas-inspired dishes.

Ending a meal here with the pudding trio—pocket-sized bowls of well-executed crème brûlée, seductive butterscotch, and velvety black-forest custard with cherries—was an outstanding choice. You also can’t go wrong with the banana tarte tatin, a tasty take on bananas Foster topped with a dollop of local Fat Cat vanilla.

Highly recommended: banana tarte tatin.

Image: Jenn Duncan

Though the concept touts its international cred, Curry’s restaurant—like Nobu—works best when it feels grounded in Houston. Miller, the former executive chef at Down House, told me that about 30 percent of the menu is unique to this location, and that there are “little nuances of Texas throughout the menu that many people won’t even notice.” Maybe he should go bolder; maybe it doesn’t matter.

International Smoke is a lot of fun. With its shareable plates and strong punch bowls, it’s perfect for large parties. Colorful graffiti spelling “smoke” in multiple languages adorns the dining room; there’s always a game on in the bar area; and the soundtrack segues from nostalgic ’90s R&B and hip-hop to bubbly ’80s pop. During one visit, a group of boisterous businessmen kept yelling “Ayesha!” even though she was nowhere to be seen, as if they were taunting her husband from the ninth row at Toyota Center. They weren’t taking their dinner too seriously, and if you don’t either, you’ll enjoy your visit.

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