West Ave Restaurant Dies

West Ave drama: Shuttering restaurant's outraged chef blames sign and valet problems for its demise

West Ave drama: Shuttering restaurant blames sign and valet problems

6 Nara restaurant Houston November 2013
Nara will close on January 31.  Photo by © Gary R. Rise/Houston Food Photography
Nara Chef Donald Chang
Chef/owner Donald Chang says his landlord refused to grant him certain concessions to make the restaurant financially viable.  Photo by © Julie Soefer
6 Nara restaurant Houston November 2013
Nara Chef Donald Chang

The trend of sudden closures in Upper Kirby is continuing into 2015. Nara — the West Ave Korean/sushi restaurant from Uptown Sushi chef/owner Donald Chang — revealed it will close for good on Saturday.

In a statement, Chang puts the blame for the closure squarely on Nara's landlord, real estate behemoth Northwestern Mutual.

Chang says he "poured (his) heart and soul" into making Nara successful. He also poured serious cash — almost $100,000 — to renovate the restaurant by relocating the entrance and bar last fall. Chang then asked Northwestern Mutual for signage on Kirby and complimentary valet to draw more people in, but the landlord's only response was a 10 day notice to vacate by Jan. 31. 

"With everything we were trying to accomplish, I really did not expect the difficulty to come from the landlord side," Chang says in the statement. "It wasn’t something that was anywhere within the realm of possibility in my mind, but unfortunately, that’s what happened . . . we just can’t continue investing more and more money in a place that’s not investing in us."

 Chang says he "poured (his) heart and soul" into making Nara successful. He also poured serious cash — almost $100,000. 

While Chang and his partners may place the blame for Nara's closure squarely with their landlord, one can't help but wonder how much Nara's menu, which blended Japanese and Korean elements, contributed to the situation. Despite having chefs who lack Chang's Korean heritage or high-profile resume, nearby restaurant Dosi is serving a winning version of Korean-inspired cuisine that wound up on just about every local publication's best new restaurants of 2014 list.

Perhaps with lower prices or a twist in concept, Nara wouldn't have needed to invest so heavily in renovations or seek concessions from Northwestern Mutual. 

CultureMap reached out to West Ave's representatives for their side of the story, but they declined to comment on Nara's charges.  

Nara's imminent closure only emphasizes the struggles restaurants have had at West Ave. The Upper Kirby development has stymied experienced operators and novices alike.

James Beard Award winner Robert Del Grande's twin restaurants Ava and Alto only lasted about two years in the space before shuttering. Global hospitality industry company sbe operated Nara's predecessor, Katsuya by Starck, but it fled the development after about a year-and-a-half. Reality TV star Susie Jimenez opened and closed her Mexican-Indian fusion restaurant Trenza in less than a year. 

On the other hand, Pondicheri, Eddie V's and Del Frisco's Grille have all found an audience in the development, which suggests that West Ave isn't cursed exactly, but its patrons seem to be fussy about what they will or won't support.

As for Chang, his future seems to be firmly rooted in Japanese, rather than Korean, cuisine. Although he won't specify that it's his next project, the chef tells the Chronicle that someday he wants to open a "very quaint, authentic, specialized sushi bar." Donald Chang does MF Sushi-style omakase?

The concept won't work in West Ave, but he probably won't have too much trouble finding someplace where it will.

Update: The initial statement from Nara's representatives incorrectly identified the landlord as Transwestern. The story has been updated to reflect the correct company, Northwestern Mutual.