With the Houston openings of two glittering sushi palaces from two hipster ideas of heaven – Uchi from Austin and Katsuya from Los Angeles – perhaps chef-owner Ji Kang had little choice but to keep expectations under control. Though Kang has an impressive-enough resume from Dallas and even New York, he was quick to subtitle his newly opened NABI on Montrose’s Westheimer a “neighborhood restaurant.”
Overall, NABI shows considerable promise, as you’d hope for any place a chef names for his mother. Kang’s mother did a lot of cooking commercially while he was growing up in Korea, so the notion of becoming a chef was nothing outlandish – to him or to her. Nor is the notion of dabbling in some culinary revisionism. This terrific grilled romaine hearts salad, for instance, with sea salt, pickled vegetables and herb dressing might be, in one of those chain eateries, be dubbed a “Japanese Caesar.”
Speaking of revionism, that has to be what’s happening when Kang’s kitchen sends out some very classic Chinese-style potstickers, only to have the first bite reveal they’re filled with beef brisket that’s been smoked Texas-style for 24 hours. The green chile involved is Southwestern in flavor and origin, but the citrus-kissed ponzu for dipping is Asian all the way.
And really, who wouldn’t go for a couple of tacos right about now. Kang isn’t the first Texas chef to re-purpose the taco delivery system to deliver Asian flavors, but he shows a solid mastery of both Asian taste and textre. The “taco meat” inside is a trio of tartares – tuna, salmon and hamachi – given a pleasurable couple of crunches by pinenuts and Fuji apples.
Compared with the tacos – which, after all, seem to be made from almost anything these days – the tuna pizza seems more of a stretch. The challenge, really, is the name more than the dining experience. If you go to a sushi place at all, you’re surely pre-qualified to eat spicy tuna served up with crispy rice, jalapeno and gold tobiko, all atop some perfectly fine vegetable tempura. The only nagging question becomes: how is this a pizza?
Finally, for the more adventurous, NABI has an octopus dish that’s at least as hardcore as anything served in those little restaurants along the Mediterranean coasts of Spain, Italy or Greece. Known simply as “seared octopus,” this is light years removed from your grandmother’s fried calamari. Turns out, NABI serves calamari, and makes sure they’re crispy the way most people like them. But this tentacle-happy octopus with endive, blood orange brown butter and hazelnuts is enough to make anybody wonder exactly what Houston neighborhood NABI is a “neighborhood restaurant” in.