Monday, October 20, 2008

Star Fish- Kubo's Knows How to Roll

Published by Commandrea (Andrea Afra) at 10:02 AM

When you hear more about a sushi restaurant’s décor than you do the food, sadly, it usually means the menu has been put on the back burner. It also means that the recipes will be tailored more for the average American scenester and less for the raw ‘fishionado’. I will admit that I do enjoy the deep fried rolls that dominate many Japanese restaurants. They’re usually tasty and beautifully arranged. But no matter how lovely a roll is to behold, beauty is only skin deep. I want to see slivers of skillfully sliced, brilliantly colored fish, untouched by heat and shining a capella.

Kubo’s has earned a great reputation through the high quality and impeccablely prepared fish it serves. Ex-oil tycoon turned restaurateur Yoichi Ueno opened Kubo’s back in 2001 with his friend Hajimi Kubokawa. Hajimi “Kubo” Kubokawa has since left the restaurant but he entrusted his right hand man, now Executive Chef Manabu "Hori" Horiuchi, to take over. Hori and Sous Chef Yu Suzuki dominate the sushi preparation with precision and flair. They each graduated from the Tsuji Culinary Institute in Osaka, the Japanese equivalent of The Culinary Institute of America. Their talent coupled with Ueno’s demand for freshness is what made renowned culinary writer John Mariani select it as one of the States’ top eight sushi spots. Something unheard of in other businesses, Mr. Ueno has been known to refuse to open the doors of the restaurant if the fish of the day doesn’t meet his stringent standards.
Kubo’s inviting casual ambiance and friendly staff, make it a great place to impress your sushi-wise clients as well as a group of friends. We’ve only had one server before who seemed new to Kubo and was still learning the menu and a bit forgetful but other than that everyone is very knowledgable. We took our friends, a chef-couple, to experience what we have known for years. During my first visit to Kubo’s a few years ago, I first cut my sushi-teeth on their buttery yellowtail tuna. Being that they were so highly esteemed for cleanliness and technique, it set my standards high from the beginning.
To start, we ordered a few rounds of sake from a cold sampler selection to go with our meal. What followed was a surfeit of sushi and savory hot dishes that demonstrated the cooks’ adroitness. Noticing that there were a several seasonal specials listed on our table tent, we decided to sample a few. Most notable were the Kobe beef tartare and and the Royal Hamachi roll. Accented simply with a bit of green onion, the tartare was much richer than other versions and quite possibly the best I’ve had. The hamachi roll was a favorite of the table. Spicy tuna, unagi, and fried shrimp are rolled in rice and topped with fresh young yellowtail, a dime of fresh jalapeno, and kissed with yuzu juice. Yuzu is a citrus fruit, similar in apperance to a yellow grapefruit but leaning more towards the taste of a tangerine. Just enough is added to the rice to complement the dish without making it the most forward component. The best dishes at Kubo’s are the ones where the fish is not upstaged by any other ingredient.
We also ordered the opulent signature appetizer of fried lobster in truffle oil sauce. While it was tasty, I was a little daunted by the salty, battered lobster after tasting the subtler flavors of some of the other dishes. While it would make a great choice if you plan on ordering from the hot menu, I would suggest not ordering this dish to accompany your sushi, so as not to overstimulate your tastebuds.
Kubo’s does have some fancy rolls but they manage to balance appearance with substance quite nicely. For eye appeal, the ‘Super Kubo’s Roll’ is a jaw-dropper. Ample amounts of fresh salmon, three shades of tobiko, unagi, avocado, and fried shrimp are adeptly brought together to create one of my all time favorite rolls. The Spider Rainbow roll holds soft shell crab, topped with colorful salmon, tuna, a white fish, asparagus, and avocado. Each roll combines succulent fresh fish with the crunch of a fried treat within. By the way, don’t waste the soy sauce by filling up your little bowl and the customary dollop of wasabi. You won’t be needing it. I watched all of our bowls and sure enough we hardly touched the stuff. The rice and food are so flavorful that after the first bite, you don’t want to have any stops between the plate and your next mouthful.
This pertains especially to the Heights roll. Again, it uses a bit of the well-received yuzu juice, some pungent green onion, a crisp shard of the tangy Japanese pickle takuan, and a center of tender yellowtail. It is then rolled in black tobiko and presently otherwise unadorned. The contrast of black speckles on the clean white background was a visual treat.
The only entrée from the hot menu that we ordered was the seared peppercorn tuna sashimi. A massive serving of thick ruby red tuna slices were edged with a quarter inch sear and amply flecked with coarsely ground black and white peppercorns. It was served on rice with a whole spear of tempura fried asparagus and crowned with what looked to be a fried gourd leaf. The fish was perfectly cooked, but some people may be put off by the amount and size of the pepper grounds. I personally prefer it just like that so I was quite happy with the dish on the whole. Just as a side note, that fried leaf didn’t taste like much of anything, not that it was supposed to. It looked great, which was the point.
With all abandon we ordered a couple of desserts, sherbert and Monkeys Gone Mad. The sherbert was one scoop each of raspberry and yuzu flavored. The raspberry was actually more tart than the yuzu but the two went well together. The Monkeys Gone Mad is a whole banana, unpeeled and unbattered, but deep fried until the center is molten hot. It is then sliced open and exposed and topped with vanilla ice cream, hot fudge, and almond slivers. Both were great, I’m sure, but I was too full at that point to register distinct flavors anymore.
To summarize: Kubo’s is the place to take anyone who knows how sushi should taste. Skip all the hot stuff and go straight for the fish and you’ll see why it’s hard not to hold everyone else to their standards. The unpretentious staff and décor make the sushi stand out even more. The only complaint I have is that the location can be a pain to reach. It’s on the second floor of the Village Arcade, near Two Rows and Bombay Brasserie, where people and traffic are always abustle. I would prefer it were on ground level, say next door to my house. It could happen.
2414 University Blvd
Houston, TX 77005
(713) 528-7878

(from past issue of Cuizine Magazine)

Me Love Oolong Time- Te' House of Tea

Published by Commandrea (Andrea Afra) at 10:00 AM

While passing through my old neighborhood a few months back I was amazed to see the funky old washateria had been transformed into a nice looking store front. Its exterior was repainted in shades of brown, foreshadowing the natural theme within. It was a new teahouse, Té House of Tea. It took me a little while but I finally was able to return pay a visit.

Light pours in through large windows creating a clean and airy vibe inside. The attention to comfort and detail is apparent in everything from the chocolate toned overstuffed couches and chairs down to the honey swizzle sticks patrons can use to sweeten their beverages. The calming effect is immediate and the staff is friendly and informed. Retail items like Japanese tea sets, white tea perfumes and of course a large variety of loose leaf teas are available for purchase. If you are looking for a unique gift for someone special this is a charming little place to search.
Behind the counter large silver cans are labeled with the exotic names of the tea leaves they contain like Oothu, Furry Tip, and Iron Goddess of Mercy. Iron Goddess was once reserved for members of the Imperial court but is now one of the most popular teas in China. I never realized how vast the varieties of teas are. White, green, black, and oolong are just a few and there are many types of each of these. White tea is made from the fresh picked leaves therefore the cost is higher due to the need for expediency and lack of shelf life. Some white teas can cost upwards of seven hundred dollars a pound! Black tea is made of fermented leaves and green tea falls somewhere in between the two. Luckily, Connie Lacobie, a native of Hong Kong, and Alyson Bell, of Ireland, have come up with a way to showcase the best and most affordable selections of fresh brewed teas.
And what is a proper cup of tea without a proper English crumpet? The food at Té is light and perfectly designed to be paired with any drink that you should choose. The breakfast menu features scones, European muesli, and crepes to name a few. For lunch a tempting selection of panini, baguettes, salads and quiche are available. Even the desserts are made in house by my new best friend (though she doesn’t know me) Tina Parent. I had her Acapulco cake, a gorgeous layered personal sized masterpiece with hints of orange and a tear jerking chocolate mousse filling. With it I had the Yin Yang, a perfect balance of coffee and black tea with milk over ice.
I also tasted a few things that I had never tried before. On the menu is a dish called ‘Ploughman’s Lunch’. Ploughman’s Pickle is a weird British condiment of sorts. It took me some time to figure out that it wasn’t a special kind of pickled cucumber. The pickle was an assortment of vegetables made into what appeared to be a savory jelly. In it diced carrots, cauliflower, rutabaga and onions are marinated in everything from malt vinegar and molasses to dates and apples. It is smeared on buttered bread and served with brie, cheddar, tomato and boiled egg wedges atop a bed of salad. I piled it up a bit of everything on the bread and tried to force it all in my mouth. While I wasn’t too successful, what I did manage to fit in was really good.
The tofu version of the Asian salad combines simple ingredients like cabbage, crispy ramen noodles and sesame seeds to make a light meal nutritious enough to tide one over until the next meal or the next course.
The staff at Té is young and innovative which adds a great touch to the atmosphere and the kitchen creations. I enjoyed a quiche made by a young and strapping lad by the name of John who also works behind the counter. Another worker, Alex Squier, has been granted wall space for his series of prints. A few simple layers in bold colors reveal his talent. With themes from music to skateboarding the pieces are both tasteful and fun.
When I was offered to taste the fruit salad I was not prepared for what was soon placed before me. Served in a tall parfait glass the fruit salad contained several exotic ingredients like agar, mung beans, lychee and coconut gel. Coconut milk is poured over the top creating a creamy balance that ties it all together. Agar is made from seaweed and becomes gelatinous when dissolved in hot water. Seaweed has been in the news lately regarding its medicinal benefits. Beans are a popular dessert ingredient in parts of Asia, commonly found in ice cream. Mung beans are much like lentils in texture and while I could have done without them they do add heft and character to the fruit salad. Lychees have the best texture, soft yet strangely chewy with a delicious berry-grape flavor. Coconut gel cubes are also common among popular Asian desserts such as in the Boba ‘bubble’ tea drinks offered all over town.
I finished this marathon meal with a cup of Monkey Picked Oolong tea. The name is from a legend that says Buddhist monks would train monkeys to harvest the youngest leaves from hard to reach places. Today the term “Monkey Picked” refers to the highest quality of oolong available. Made from the youngest tea leaves, this tea can be used for multiple infusions.
Té House of Tea uses only Fair Trade tea and provides a lovely ambiance to enjoy it in. It’s perfect for you Café Brasilites who feel like trying something new be it baked or brewed.
Tuesday-Thursday 9am - 10pm
Friday and Saturday 9am-midnight
Sunday 10am-8pm
Closed Mondays
Live music and open mic on Fridays and Saturdays
1927 Fairview St.
Houston, TX 77019
(713) 522-8868

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