Kata Robata readies for Uchi with the Culinary Assassin
Foodie ears perked up a few weeks ago with the announcement that Seth Siegel-Gardner would be joining the kitchen at Kata Robata. Variously described as a sous chef and a consulting chef, his business card describes him (in Japanese) as something that loosely translates to "culinary assassin."
It's a title he's earned. Siegel-Gardner has worked under some true rock stars of the culinary world, from Marcus Samuelsson (at New York's Aquavit) to Gordon Ramsay (at Maze, also in NYC). Returning to Houston in 2010, he made a splash with his celebrated pop-up restaurant, the Just August Project.
Siegel-Gardner and Kata executive chef Manabu Horiuchi (who goes by Hori or Hori-san) have effectively split up the menu, with Hori focusing on the updated classics that put the restaurant on the map, and Siegel-Gardner taking the same Asian traditions, ingredients and presentations and mixing them with his global background and cutting-edge technology. A tasting of dishes from both Hori and Siegel-Gardner is like taking a culinary bullet train from traditional presentations to modern flair, with equally impressive results.
"It's interesting to watch them teach each other," general manager Joshua Martinez says.
For a tasting dinner, Hori opened with a crudo of sorts with Japanese snapper and Texas grapefruit with a sprinkling of chili powder. The result was a an interesting, flavorful bite than played between sweet and acidic.
Siegel-Gardner followed with sashimi-grade salmon served with pickled cucumber and cabbage and chips of fried salmon skin. The salmon was predictably excellent, but when combined with the greens there was a lovely and unexpected sweet crunchiness that played well off the bright salmon flavor.
"I've never worked at an Asian restaurant before, so this is a new experience for me," Siegel-Gardner says. "There's a lot of similarities between Scandinavian cuisine and Japanese cuisine. They both like straight lines and minimalist presentations, both use a lot of acid. So I'm basically taking my experience and translating it using Asian ingredients and flavors."
Siegel-Gardner has been doing some exciting things with pork (Kata splits a pig every two weeks with sister restaurant Soma, sharing tips and techniques with Jason Hauck), and his cured slice of togarashi lardo mixed with a sliver of uni (sea urchin) over a seared rice cake was one of the most interesting dishes of the day. The lardo-uni blend had an indefinable texture somewhere between a liquid, a gel and a solid and a fantastic cured flavor that made up for the overwhelming volume of the rice, which I found distracting.
Hori's sashimi plate of flounder, yellowtail and aji (horse mackerel) reminded that dishes don't have to be complex to wow — the fleshy, perfectly cut flounder dipped in ponzu sauce was an undeniable highlight.
With a plate of grilled and dried short rib amid mild wasabi leaves, broccoli stems and flowers and toasted nori yogurt, Siegel-Gardner continued to raise the bar. The bite as a whole was lush, but the dried short rib alone was particularly delightful and bacon-like.
Another standout was Siegel-Gardner's barbecue unagi served with an unagi-infused foie gras terrine, pickled apples, hibiscus, a hibiscus-unagi sauce and bone marrow powder. The terrine is outstanding — and with the subtle eel flavor it's a great choice for foie gras newbies as well as pros. The entire dish sang, and while Siegel-Gardner downplayed its uniqueness — "I'm not the first guy to serve eel with foie gras" — it's definitely a one-of-a-kind plate in Houston.
But Siegel-Gardner saved the best for last with his modern take on onsen tamago, or "hot springs egg." Recreating the conditions of poaching an egg in a perfect hot spring, it was delicately poised before bursting it over the bed of rich greens, black garlic sausage bites and smoked gnocchi. Every bite was truly spectacular — had it been the first course rather than the eighth, I would have cleaned the plate.
Seth makes no qualms about his long-term plans at Kata — he's hoping to eventually open his own restaurant in Houston — but his presence in the kitchen has clearly taken the restaurant to the next level. And with Austin's Uchi scheduled to open a Houston location in 2011 and rumors that Los Angeles fave Katsuya is on the way, there's no better time.
"Everyone in town is thinking about Uchi," Siegel-Gardner says. "I don't think it's something to be afraid of. This is a great food city and there's room for everyone. It's just going to to make people up their game."