Nara, Chef Donald Chang’s restaurant that will be the first modern Korean-inspired kitchen in Houston, opened on Wednesday, Nov. 13, at West Ave at River Oaks. Drawing on his Korean heritage and 23 years of experience in Japanese restaurants including Uptown Sushi, Bluefin, The Fish and Miyako, Chang is set to unveil a concept that will make Nara a one-of-a-kind destination in the thriving Houston culinary scene.
Chang – who was born in Seoul, South Korea and has lived in Houston for 37 years – opened the original Nara in West Houston as the city’s first Japanese tablecloth restaurant in 1996 at the age of 26. The new Nara will introduce Houstonians and the Inner Loop to an authentic Korean dining experience, mixed with Japanese cuisine true to Chang’s culinary training and the two countries’ entwined histories.
“We’ve basically pulled the best from both cultures and put it into one restaurant,” Chang said. “Koreans do sushi, but not like the Japanese. Japanese have their own style of beef, but it’s not like Korean. We’re blending the two cultures together with components of both. It’s a mix between the food I grew up eating and the food I grew up with professionally as a classically-trained Japanese chef. I’m beyond excited about how it all has come together.”
The culinary team at Nara features a heavy Korean influence, starting with Chang as Executive Chef. Chang’s mother, Kyong Ja Chang, consulted on the menu to ensure its authenticity. Chang’s sister, Esther Cho, will work side-by-side with him as Nara’s Head Kitchen Chef. Her top assistant is Chef Dae Young Jo, a graduate of the Art Institute of Houston who was born and raised in Korea. Nara’s Head Sushi Chef, Jojo Urbano, trained under Chang at Uptown Sushi in 2005. Urbano’s top assistant is Chef Peter Kim, formerly of Miyako, Kenzo Sushi Bistro and Soma Sushi. Kim is also of Korean descent, as is Nara General Manager Shawn Pyon, the former GM at Uptown Sushi and the original Nara. Korean-American designer Jenny Kim of Jenny Kim Couture in Rice Village created the attire for the entire Nara staff, including chef aprons and wait staff uniforms.
“We’ve had really good feedback from the Korean community in Houston,” Chang said. “Some of our chefs approached us after reading about our opening back in July. They wanted to be part of Nara because it’s Korean. We’ve seen a lot of the Korean community really clamoring to help us, surrounding us with curiosity and the desire to learn and help move Korean food forward. I’m so grateful.”
Nara’s layout is divided into four distinct areas, each offering a unique dining experience: A 96-seat main dining room complete with a central sushi/bun bar, a 10-person chef’s table directly in front of an exhibition kitchen, a private 16-seat room designed for an authentic Korean grilling experience, and an outdoor patio lounge with a seating capacity of 60. Each area connects to the other, which Chang hopes will create a natural curiosity and conversation among diners.
The main dining room will feature an upscale Korean-inspired menu, highlighted by Small Bites including Oxtail Rice Cake; Dumplings with Spanish Duroc pork, roasted garlic and dashi gelee; and Jellyfish Salad with cured jellyfish, king crab and a pine nut vinaigrette. An expansive Hot Rock Grill selection includes American Kobe beef, Berkshire pork and organic chicken. Also on the menu are Comfort & Classics including Bibimbap (rice topped with crispy pork belly and sunny side-up quail egg), Spicy Oxtail Ramen (made with kimchi, calamari and seasonal clams) and Bulgogi Pot Pie (with Kobe hanger steak and fresh black truffle), and Sweets including Green Tea Tiramisu, Bacon Cookies (made with chili and dark chocolate ganache) and a Molasses Pancake (muscovado sugar, marcona almonds and ice cream). Nara’s cocktail program features soju, a Korean rice liquor, which along with pears, grapes and other fresh fruit varietals will be integrated into martinis and other drinks to give them a Korean twist.
The sushi bar and outdoor patio area will have a separate, more casual menu – also available in the main dining room – with eight different Steamed Buns including spicy pork, prime boneless short rib, organic chicken meatballs and roasted vegetable. The bread for the buns is made in-house in a four-hour process overseen by Cho, Chang’s sister. The menu also features more than 30 types of nigiri sushi and sashimi and 16 specialty sushi rolls, including the signature Nara Roll, a Korean-style kimbap made with rib eye, spinach, carrots, pickled radish, sesame oil and an egg omelette. The fish at Nara is imported daily from Japan, the east and west coasts of the United States and all around the world, with an emphasis on sustainable wild fish from independent boat captains in small communities.
Starting in late December, Nara’s 10-person chef table will be available twice a night for reservations at 6:30 and 8:30 PM. Chang will personally treat the table to a six-course menu at $85 a person. The menu will likely change every two weeks and include more daring options not on Nara’s main menu such as Kimchi soup, Sake Samgyupsal (rice wine-marinated pork belly) and Hyu Mit Gui (cow tongue).
The private dining space will offer an authentic Korean grilling experience. Enclosed behind glass walls but visible to the entire restaurant, the room features four tables with built-in 14-inch yakiniku grills, which Chang found in Korea on a recent two-week visit. Nara’s chefs and staff will prepare meals directly on the grills at each table, paired with completely non-Westernized sides.
Nara’s 6,898-square foot interior is punctuated by organic, earthy tones, stone tabletops, a glass-enclosed wine room and chairs made by JANUS et Cie. The restaurant’s entrance features a majestic Sakura tree made from petrified wood and hand-made pink silk leaves, setting the tone for a comfortable, vibrant and sleek space designed by architect Isaac Preminger.
Information provided by Nick Scurfield of On the Mark Communications.