New Big-Time Restaurant

Katsuya replacement takes shape: Houston's never seen a restaurant with this much Seoul

Katsuya replacement takes shape: Houston restaurant's a game changer

Katsuya, interior, lips
Gone will be those Philippe Starck lips as Donald Chang revamps the old Katsuya space for his resurrected Korean-inspired Nara. Photo by Julie Soefer/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

With Katsuya now officially laid to rest, having quietly closed down Fourth of July week, Houston foodie legend Donald Chang is busy at work on a new concept set to replace the high-traffic restaurant space in West Ave this fall.

On deck is the bold return of Nara — the Westside restaurant that made Chang a darling of the late 1990s food scene for his innovative fusion of Asian and Western flavors.

This time around, however, the Bluefin and Uptown Sushi chef is keeping his Japanese cooking skills at bay to focus on his Korean roots, which will take center stage at the resurrected institution.

"The word nara actually has two meanings," Chang tells CultureMap in a phone interview from New York. "It was the name of Japan's capital in the 14th century. But in Korean, it actually means country, like 'our country.' "

The wordplay, he says, is only fitting for a menu that will merge modern Korean cuisine with his own Japanese culinary training.

"Korean food is pretty strong, so I've bee n searching for little ways to soften the more classic flavors for a non-Korean palate."

"I've been sitting on this concept for about five years now and can't wait to finally see it happen. I'll be working with my sister, who's amazing with family-style Korean cooking," Chang says, joking that he's making his mom nervous with some of the Japanese fusion recipes.

Using only 6,800 of Katsuya's original 8,000 square feet, Houston designer Issac Preminger (Tiny Boxwoods) is dividing the new Nara space into four essential components — a casual outdoor bar for smaller plates, an interior dining room with a full fusion menu, a chef's table and a private banquet room that can be reserved for traditional Korean food.

"Korean food is pretty strong, so I've been searching for little ways to soften the more classic flavors for a non-Korean palate," Chang notes. "But for people who do want the authentic experience, we're really excited to offer full-fledged Korean meals in our private rooms."

While most of the inaugural menu is well underway, the chef says he will make his semi-regular trek to Korea and Japan in August for additional ideas and inspiration.

"Japanese cuisine is wonderful, but never really changes," Chang says. "Korean food, though, is really evolving these days thanks to new Western influences.

"It's always cool just to see what's going on."

For more on Katsuya's closure, read CultureMap's complete exclusive story from last week.