Nabi Neighborhood Restaurant
1517 Westheimer Rd Houston
I got an email invitation to Nabi’s soft opening a few months back, but dismissed it when I saw that it was the new Yan Sushi/Tomate. Boy was I wrong to do that! Later on, I read on yelp that they had a whole suckling pig among other treats for free. This is just like the time when I missed the all you can eat ceviche party at Valentino. Gawd. I suck. Anyway, Aaron was feeling sick/not hungry yesterday, so we wanted to go somewhere fun (being stuck inside the house all day makes you CRAY CRAY) with small bites.
She ate: I motherclucking loved this place. It used to be Yan Sushi, which is a story in of itself. Aaron and I were dirt poor college students when we first met, so we used to go to the Yan Sushi on Holcombe, or what we usually called “Sushi To Go.” They had dollar sushi, a drive through, 5 tiny tables, and a very odd, concrete furnished patio. It was our heaven. I would get all dressed up and Aaron would forego his Adidas flip-flops and put on actual shoes to take me out on a sushi date. We were devastated when it closed its doors, and cautiously optimistic when it reopened in the Westheimer location. Although the warm greetings from the original boss lady was the same, the vibe was sterile, the sushi prices had gone up, and the crowd was not as fun-loving. We stopped going there after a couple of tries, and after it was renamed Tomate, our only interaction with Yan Sushi was chuckling at the name change as we drove by.
When I received the invitation to go to Nabi’s soft opening, I thought it was yet another name change and discarded the email. After hearing about and seeing pictures of the innovative dishes at Nabi, I couldn’t wait to try the food. I was further pleasantly surprised when we walked in the door. The new owners have softened the space with muted colors, a fun orange mural on one end of the wall, and replaced most of the walls with large panels of chalkboard which customers can draw on. It was a very young and relaxed vibe, but at the same time retained its street cred. (I clearly have no street cred since I just used the words “street cred” but I’m doing my best to keep it real.)
The new young owners kept the bar at the original location, but added some booths in the middle so separate the restaurant from the bar. They’ve also put in a larger booth area for a big party in one corner. I love the division of space in the new Nabi. It reminds me of the casual Japanese bars that serve snack foods I used to frequent when I lived in San Francisco.
Now, on to the food and drinks. They have great happy hour and late night specials for drinks and snacks. Our total bill came out to $55 for everything, including drinks and dessert. In comparison to our bill for the Capitol at St. Germain was a great relief. The atmostphere is different, but the food was significantly better.
Pulled brisket gyozas:
He ate: I’ve never had brisket in any sort of dumpling/wontons. It was really good! The sauce that came with it, I don’t know what it is, kind of a mild, sweet soy sauce, was a great complement to the gyozas. This dish was by far the best part of the meal.
She ate: I LOVED the pan-fried brisket gyozas. I’m usually not a big fan of brisket, but their brisket was soft and juicy. Wrapped in the thin crispy dumpling skin, the whole thing just melts in your mouth. I wasn’t as huge of a fan of the sauce it came with as Aaron—I’m pretty sure it’s a typical out-of-the-bottle gyoza sauce, but it served its purpose.
He ate: I was not a big fan of the tempura calamari until I found out it was actually cauliflower fritters. At first I was like, meh, this calamari is bland, but after I found out it’s cauliflower, that was way better! It’s very good for what it is! It was a nice combination of flavor with the sesame seed, plum gel, and a scoop of the same red spicy sweet sauce that is on the fried chicken.
She ate: The cauliflower fritters were light, crispy, and not greasy. It was perfectly drizzled with just enough tangy mayo sauce. The batter seasoning are nothing worth mentioning, I think it was probably just salt, but it really did not need anything else. You can tell that the chef really thought through this dish, as it was peppered with torn sesame leaves and came with a bit of plum gel, which complimented the saltiness of the fritters quite well. I loved the freshness of the sesame leaves in contrast to the deep-fried veggie.
He ate: Most disappointing was the Turf roll. It’s supposed to have truffle oil, which I did not taste at ALL. The concept of a steak roll is terrible. Sushi is supposed to be delicate, not with red meat, to me anyway.
She ate: The Turf roll was a big disappointment. I don’t have the same concept of sushi as Aaron does, it being delicate and what not. My dad used to make guerilla sushi, simply toasting a sheet of seaweed over the stove, taking some leftover rice (or if we were fancy, taking the rice out of the rice cooker, sprinkle it with sushi vinegar and sugar, mix, pop in the fridge for ten minutes), and throwing some deli ham (manager’s special at Safeway, of course) and a generous squeeze of Kewpie mayo and wasabe—WALAAH, dinner is served. We’d eat the entire thing burrito-style, uncut. So, I have no problem with meat in my sushi.
(Sidenote: does it bother anyone else that sushi in America is always served with the seaweed on the inside? It annoys me to no end. The purpose of the sushi is to hold the whole darn thing together. Because the rice is on the outside, the rice is usually to sticky/clumpy because it has to be in order to be the binder. Also, it makes the seaweed soft instead of the nice crispy contrast to the rice it should have, not to mention the proportion of seaweed to rice is completely off when it’s on the inside. Why do restaurants insist on making sushi this way, yet when they use the albino soy sheets, those are always on the outside? I do not get it.)
Back to the turf roll, I would not have mind the idea of having red meat in my sushi if it had ANY truffle flavor at all. I do appreciate the fried onion shreds on top as a nod to the steakhouse favorite. The meat was also not great quality, it tasted more like a skirt steak than rib eye.
Korean fried chicken:
He ate: The Korean fried chicken came with a red sweet and spicy sauce, with some parsley and slivered pickled red onions on top. I didn’t think it was too spicy, but Amy thought it was. I thought it was perfect. The chicken was crispy and a good rendition of what it is. I don’t particularly love the sauce ON the chicken…I don’t think anybody does. Well, apparently Korean people do. We were here on a Sunday, when they have a $16 special of all you can eat fried chicken, tempura shrimp, and bbq pork but honestly I don’t know how much fried chicken i can have because this stuff is pretty rich and heavy.
I wasn’t very hungry when I got here, but when the food came out, I discovered I was hungry after all! Everything was so delicious that my appetite was awakened, which speaks volumes about the food as I was feeling sick as a dog.
She ate: The fried chicken was pretty delicious. I don’t normally like sauce directly on my fried chicken as it ruins the crispiness (not to mention leftovers will be soggy) but I didn’t mind it so much here as I know it is typical of Korean fried chicken. I wish it came with some kimchi. The batter was nice and salty without it being too salty and leaving me parched for the next two days, as most fried chicken tend to be. Next time though, I will ask for the sauce to be on the side (yes, I’m one of those eternally “on the side” people. Cut to Aaron quoting When Harry Met Sally “because not everyone likes the sauce ON the cake.”) The fried chicken was a large portion, it came with a big drumstick, thigh, and two pieces of breast. Everything in this restaurant was a nice sized portion, not ridiculously huge as most western restaurants are, but large enough for it to be worth the price and satisfying for my eyes and stomach.
Calpis sake cocktail:
He ate: Amy’s cocktail was yogurt-y and refreshing. I liked it and would get it next time, or maybe try any of their other sake cocktails.
She ate: I had a hot sake with my main course (typical house sake, nothing to speak of) so I decided to go fancy for my dessert cocktail. Their calpis cocktail is made of calpis, sweetened milk, crushed mint leaves, and sake. It was a mildly sweet and soothing cocktail. I really liked it because it has the refreshing taste of mint, no tangy sourness from the lemon and lime that is prevalent in so many cocktails, and a subtle yogurt flavor. I would definitely order this again.
He ate: The dessert came out looking like any fried thing from any culture with some ice cream. But when you cut into it, it’s full of fruit and SO tasty. I really liked it.
Nabi is going for an Asian Texan fusion, and I think they’re doing it very well. If this is the beginning, and they’re going to work on this, this is a GREAT beginning. I wasn’t in a very foodie mood, and I was very pleased with what I had.
She ate: The dessert was a nice surprise. I fully expected a greasy empenada, but what arrived were two perfectly fried to order, not greasy hand pies. They were filled with hot cubes of Asian pears and poppy seeds, topped with slowly melting vanilla ice cream, a small scoop of whipped cream, and swimming in a shallow pool of creme anglaise. Once again, the attention to detail the chef is duly noted and appreciated. Nothing was overly sweet and it was a very pleasant end to the meal indeed.
The service was great. We were asked if we needed anything regularly, dishes arrived promptly, everything was very clean, and they even changed the channel for us when we asked if we could watch the Giants/Broncos game. I had high expectations for this restaurant, and my expectations were beyond met. There are so many more dishes I want to try next time, like the ramen (Could this be the place inside the loop for good ramen? I have high hopes.) and home fries (While fries with kimchee is not exactly a new concept, it’s always a welcomed one.).
tl; dr: Go to Nabi! Nothing negative to say!