Upscale Korean restaurant Nara recently added a six-course chef's tasting menu to its offerings of sushi, hot entrees and Korean barbecue. For $100 per person ($150 with wine/alcohol pairings), chef Donald Chang will guide groups of 10 to 13 diners through an enhanced version of the best of the restaurant's eclectic menu.
Eager to see if the restaurant could deliver on a relatively expensive offering, I recently sampled the menu. While my initial look at Nara expressed some skepticism about the restaurant's place in Houston's dining scene, the tasting menu unequivocally delivers on Chang's goal of utilizing high quality ingredients to deliver inventive, Korean-inspired cuisine. While the menu will change, expect the current version to stick around for at least a little while.
The meal begins with red miso clam chowder. Keeping to Chang's goal of delivering dishes that are lighter than the traditional counterparts, the soup lacks the traditional thick, cream-filled broth in favor of a lighter stock, but the dish itself derives lots of flavor from the combination of dashi and miso. Also, each bite contains at least one plump, sweet clam.
No Houston restaurant currently delivers quite the same experience.
From there, it's a greatest hits menu of luxurious ingredients. Spanish toro comes in a raw salad preparation with Korean shingo pear creme anglaise and a soy vinaigrette that balances the tuna's natural fattiness with a sweet/salty kick. Then, Chang serves Texas T Kobe beef tartare that's blended with pine nuts, sesame oil and baby leeks, proving that not every ingredient on Nara's menu comes with a proverbial passport stamp.
Poached lobster claw is the meal's only misstep. The side of spicy cucumber kimchi completely overwhelmed the lobster's natural sweetness.
The meal's highlight came from Japanese A5 Kobe. Speckled with fat that glistened in the light, Chang showed off the piece of meat prior to instructing his kitchen to sear it quickly on as hot a pan as possible. While the phrase "melts in your mouth" is certainly overused, it does capture the sensation of this beef yielding in the mouth to the slightest pressure.
For dessert, a traditional red bean soup that's enhanced with brown sugar and sesame-stuffed rice cakes, was served. It was fine, but I'd probably ask to substitute the restaurant's green tea tiramisu if possible.
Beyond the food, dining with Chang adds to the overall quality of the experience. The chef is a friendly and garrulous host who's there to explain how each dish is prepared and what its influences are. Have a question about a sauce or an ingredient? He's there with as much detail as anyone could reasonably want.
As the meal wrapped up, Chang discussed Nara's progress in the three months it's been open. He said he's pleased with the extent to which diners are embracing the Korean dishes on the menu. In his quest to fine tune those offerings, he recently added a traditional oxtail soup, bibimbap and fried whole fish. Nara's take on Korean fried chicken comes via chicken wings with a spicy kick from gochujang.
The word seems to be spreading, too. By 7 p.m. on a Thursday, the dining room had almost completely filled in.
As good as the meal was, the price point does limit the audience. Even ignoring the difficulty of finding 10 friends to agree to spend that kind of money on a meal, one can have a superb dining experience at almost any restaurant in Houston for $100, including the eight-course tasting menu at The Pass or a pretty thorough taste of the various reasons Uchi is so successful.
This chef's tasting menu experience won't be must-try for most people, but diners who have fallen for Nara and want a unique experience with Chang should consider taking the plunge. No Houston restaurant currently delivers quite the same experience.