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)


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