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Midtown Japanese Boom

Growing Houston restaurant empire stakes Japanese claim to Midtown with "drink first" concept

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Farrago Restaurant patio
The Azuma Group will open an izakaya in the former Farrago space later this summer.  Farrago Restaurant/Google.com
News_Manabu Horiuchi_chef_Kata Robata
Kata Robata sushi chef Manabu Horiuchi will be involved, but the restaurant will have its own chef.  Photo by Ruthie Johnson Miller
Izakaya-Wa Houston Japanese restaurant in Memorial area October 2013 exterior at night
Expect the restaurant to be less traditional than Izakaya Wa in Memorial.  Photo by Carl Rosa
Farrago Restaurant patio
News_Manabu Horiuchi_chef_Kata Robata
Izakaya-Wa Houston Japanese restaurant in Memorial area October 2013 exterior at night

Ever since Farrago World Cuisine suddenly closed in July, restaurant industry insiders and diners have speculated about what would replace it. Last week, the Azuma Group, owners of Japanese restaurants Kata Robata and Soma as well as three Azuma locations, revealed it had leased the space to open an izakaya. (The Chronicle first reported the development).

At an izakaya, the drinks come first, and the menu of small plates complements the beer or sake that guests are drinking. Owner Yun Cheng tells CultureMap the new restaurant, which has yet to be formally named, won't be 100 percent traditional. "It will be our version of it," he says. Cheng isn't concerned about competing with recently opened Japanese BBQ restaurant Gyu Kaku, saying that the new restaurant will be "totally different" than the newcomer.  

 "Midtown is definitely a very hot spot," Cheng adds. "The clientele really lends itself to an izakaya."  

An izakaya has "always been in the works," Cheng says. The company originally considered opening a similar concept in the Azuma downtown space but didn't think Houstonians were ready to appreciate it.

"Midtown is definitely a very hot spot," Cheng adds. "The clientele really lends itself to an izakaya." 

Kata Robata sushi chef Manabu Horiuchi "will be a part of" the restaurant, but they're currently interviewing chefs who will be in place full-time. Hori-san (as he's known) is an izakaya fan who has hosted several pop-ups at Kata with izakaya menus.

The concept itself has recently emerged in Houston, with Goro & Gun offering a non-traditional take on the style and Memorial restaurant Izakaya-Wa skewing more classic. Some rumors suggest that Roost chef/owner Kevin Naderi's new restaurant in the former El Gran Malo space, Lillo and Ella, will be inspired by the izakaya pop-up he hosted with the Eatsie Boys during Houston Beer Week, but so far Naderi has refused to discuss his plans publicly.

Expect more details on Kata Robata's version (the name, the chef, etc) to emerge as the late summer opening draws closer. 

One thing is certain: with Gyu Kaku, the izakaya and Houston's first location of international chain JINYA Ramen Bar all on the way, Midtown really is turning Japanese

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