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Top Chef Lessons

Lessons from Houston's top sushi restaurant: Don't you dare call it Chicken of the Sea!

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Kata Robata Sushi + Grill Chef Manabu Horiuchi cheking out live scallops before preparing
Chef Manabu Horiuchi of Kata Robata Sushi + Grill, pictured here cheking out live scallops before preparing Kata Robata Sushi + Grill/Facebook
Kata Robata Sushi + Grill ika, anago, scallop foie gras, chu-toro
Kata Robata Sushi + Grill's ika, anago, scallop foie gras and chu-toro, the latter cut from the the semi-fat tuna loin Photo by Mia Pham/Instagram
Kata Robata, dining room
"Our regulars know the difference,” the chef says, “but probably not the average Houstonian.” Photo by Julie Soefer/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau
Kata Robata Sushi + Grill live scallop, hamachi belly, New Zealand salmon, kanpachi, maguro, abalone, toro, uni
The strongest flavor is found in the dark red akami, center. Pictured is Kata Robata Sushi + Grill's live scallop, hamachi belly, New Zealand salmon, kanpachi, maguro, abalone, toro and uni. Photo by Mia Pham/Instagram
Kata Robata Sushi + Grill tuna O-toro
O-toro, the fattest cut, is like butter: It melts in your mouth. Photo by Mia Pham/Instagram
Kata Robata Sushi + Grill Chef Manabu Horiuchi cheking out live scallops before preparing
Kata Robata Sushi + Grill ika, anago, scallop foie gras, chu-toro
Kata Robata, dining room
Kata Robata Sushi + Grill live scallop, hamachi belly, New Zealand salmon, kanpachi, maguro, abalone, toro, uni
Kata Robata Sushi + Grill tuna O-toro
News_Marene Gustin_columnist_mug_head shot

Growing up the only tuna I ever ate came in a can.

My mother used to make tuna casserole about once a week using Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup, a can of very bland tuna, some egg noodles and breadcrumbs. It was hot, hardy and not very tasty, even though the tuna can read White Albacore Tuna, a rather fancy sounding name.

Fast forward a billion years and I love thick tuna steaks and delicate raw slivers of tuna. And I can’t remember the last time I bought tuna in a can. Albacore is not the best species for eating. I much prefer yellowfin or the rarer, pricier bluefin.

“No, no,” says chef Manabu Horiuchi, known as Hori-san, the mastermind behind Kata Robata Sushi + Grill. “Don’t think Chicken of the Sea!”

Chef Hori-san uses fresh albacore from the West Coast that has less mercury than fish caught in other areas. “Some of it can be very good,” he insists.

 Sushi should be eaten in one bite and in Japan the chefs will adjust the size of the piece. A smaller portion for a slender woman, slightly larger for a sumo wrestler. 

But mostly good sushi and sashimi comes from yellowfin (often called ahi), bigeye and bluefin. Skipjack, a fifth species of tuna is more commonly served seared in Japanese restaurants.

Hori-san says tuna is probably the most common fish in Japan and he would know. Born, raised and trained in Japan, the chef graduated from the Tsuji Culinary Institute of Japan in Osaka where he received a certificate in preparing blowfish.

But back to tuna.

Tuna 101

Chef Hori-san explains that besides getting great quality, fresh fish, the taste also depends on the cut. The fish can range in size up to hundreds of pounds so most restaurants buy tuna loins. There are four loins, two dorsal and two belly, or toro, cuts.

Hoiriuchi brings three loin cuts out from the kitchen and shows where the fattiest, o-toro cut, rests next to the semi-fat chutoro, and the dark red akami loin nestles on top.

 “No, no. Don’t think Chicken of the Sea!”  

“O-toro, the fattest cut, it is like butter, it melts in your mouth,” he explains. But it doesn’t have the strongest flavor. That would be the dark red akami, which is the cut Horiuchi and I both prefer.

It’s all rather like comparing different breeds and cuts of steak. You can see the different amounts of marbling, intramuscular fat, just as you would in a side of beef.

It’s all very fascinating and maybe not something the average sushi eater is aware of.

“Our regulars know the difference,” Horiuchi says, “but probably not the average Houstonian.”

And there are a few more things you might not know about eating raw fish. Slices of raw fish, sashimi, are eaten with chopsticks but nigiri — thicker slices atop vinegary rice — and rolls can be eaten by hand or with chopsticks.

Oh, and dunking that sushi? You’re probably doing it wrong also.

In Japan, Hori-san explains that you don’t mix the wasabi in the soy sauce because the sushi chef has put the right amount of wasabi on the pieces. And when you dunk it, you turn the nigiri 90 degrees and dip the fish side into the soy. The rice will soak up too much sauce and mess with the flavor of the fish.

In better restaurants the chef will actually use a little brush to brush the right amount of soy onto your nigiri before he serves you.

“Japanese sushi restaurants are very small,” Horiuchi says. “Very intimate so the customer can talk to the chef. You order one or two pieces at a time and then order more. If you want it hotter than you ask the chef to add more wasabi.”

Sushi should be eaten in one bite and in Japan the chefs will adjust the size of the piece they make just for you. A smaller portion for a slender woman, slightly larger for a sumo wrestler.

Clearly I’ve been enjoying my raw fish all-wrong. But now that I know I’ll do a better job. And I’ll sit at the sushi bar and treat the chef like a master bartender. Ask them to suggest sushi pieces and order them a few pieces at a time. Or go with the omakase chef tasting with a sake pairing just once.

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