Without even the much-ballyhooed “magic of television,” I went to dinner last night at two of my favorite Houston restaurants. The chef and sous chef of both Kata Robata and Haven got together (that’s a quartet of chefs, if you’re counting) to prepare something called an Umami Dinner. And while the dictionary does us no favors by defining/describing umami as “savoriness,” the four chefs went the extra mile to help us understand.
“Chef Hori” (Manabu Horiuchi) was the gracious host on behalf of Kata, but it was hard to forget Randy Evans of Haven was in the kitchen when these Texas Gulf Coast oysters showed up with a minimum of camouflage. Yes, there was something on top called “ghost pepper caviar” plus a very simple mignonette. But mostly what was waiting on these half shells was a glistening, salty-clean taste of the sea. The oysters were expertly paired with some bubbles, California’s Domaine Carneros Brut Rose.
These days, fusion or no fusion, so many culinary threads come together over uncooked fish. This ceviche, for instance, was pleasantly citrusy, complete with the surprise of the “olive oil sorbet.” At the tables, words like ceviche were awash among other words like sushi and sashimi. All in all, the Umami Dinner had nine courses, so each tended to be small and tending toward light.
While cooking definitely understands the concept of “top billing” – which of course goes to the chef-owner or executive chef of each restaurant – there was a good deal of attention paid to each sous chef: Mark Gabriel Medina of Kata Robata and Jean Philippe Gaston of Haven. This, for instance, was Medina’s reinvention of the salad, with grilled leeks, gruyere cheese, mustard seeds, spiced walnuts and a balsamic glaze.
Almost as though this were an Italian dinner, it definitely had a “pasta course” – the pasta made with the fennel Italian cooks use as often as possible. Still, what happened to this pasta after that wasn’t Italian, starting with something called “karasumi,” plus Meyer lemon zest, pine nuts and olive oil. The wine paired with this was the lovely De Westhof Bon Vallon chardonnay.
Mackerel remains something of an acquired taste, whether we euphemize it as “full-flavored” or call it what all old-time Gulf fishermen always call it, “oily.” Still, Chef Hori turned to mackerel for one of the most traditional Japanese dishes of the evening, braising the fish in miso before pairing it up with frisee, kumquats and an intriguing “espuma” tinged with mustard. True to tradition, the dish showed up with a glass of sake, the Kanbara “Bride of the Fox” junmai ginjo.
Chef Randy made a heartfelt joke to the 30 lucky diners, something about not wanting to “mess up” seafood in front of a sushi master like Chef Hori. As big fans of Haven, we’re sure Evans would have done seafood fine. But we were more than happy with his quail “Scotched” eggs, meaning stuffed into a sausage ball, and especially with this veal with beat puree, crispy fried kale chips and unexpected (though unsweet) cocoa nibs The veal dish showed up with the delicious Z Blend from Paraduxx.
When you reach the ninth course of any menu, it’s kinda hard to guess what – if anything – the folks out front want for dessert. Hint: They want something. And second hint: it’s almost certainly chocolate. The four umami dinner chefs came up with a pound cake of dark chocolate and coffee, with a mildly bizarre trio of sesame sherbet, orange marmalade and tamarind curd. Whatever that sounds like to you, it produced nothing but empty dessert plates in Kata Robata’s dining room.