100 Favorite Dishes 2013-2014: No. 9, Uni Chawanmushi at Kata Robata
This year, leading up to our annual Menu of Menus® issue, Kaitlin Steinberg counts down her 100 favorite dishes as she eats her way through Houston. She'll compile a collection of the dishes she thinks are the most awesome, most creative and, of course, most delicious in town. It's a list of personal favorites, things she thinks any visitor or Houstonian ought to try at least once and dishes that seem particularly indicative of the ever-changing Houston foodscape.
Photos by Kaitlin Steinberg The Uni Chawanmushi at Kata Robata won an award in 2011.
Plain chawanmushi has five ingredients: soy sauce, mirin, dashi, eggs and salt. It's an incredibly simple dish conceptually, but quite complex to execute. Once the elements are combined, the mixture must be strained through a cheesecloth or very fine sieve to remove any possible impurities. There should be just enough egg that the ingredients will congeal. Miss the mark by a hair -- a few too many flakes of dashi, an extra drop of soy sauce -- and the custard will break.
The light, quivering chawanmushi at Kata Robata is served steaming hot, literally. It's made to order, so it takes about 20 minutes from the time you request it until it's placed before you in a small ceramic pot, still emanating heat from a bath in the steamer. It's a breathtaking moment when the lid comes off, revealing the bright orange uni and tremulous bed of custard beneath it.
Digging in gently, you'll discover additions to this chawanmushi that elevate it beyond a traditional egg custard to a dish indicative of the talent of Kata Robata's chef, Manabu Horiuchi. Beneath the top layer of uni, custard and strips of shiitake mushrooms lie shrimp, chicken thigh meat and distinctive bright yellow ginkgo nuts. In spite of the fact that the uni is merely resting on top, the briny, slightly sweet ocean sensibility of the sea urchin invades the entire dish.
See that smooth surface? This chawanmushi has the perfect texture.
The silky, airy custard takes on the flavor of the uni, while underneath it the bits of shrimp and chicken swim in a light broth, adding a different textural element to an otherwise smooth dish. And then, every now and then, a pop of soft ginkgo nut the consistency of a lightly boiled potato.
It's the combination of textures -- silky, glutinous, chewy, soft -- and flavors -- briny, gamey, umami -- that makes this seemingly simple, classic dish so unique. Chef Hori even won an award from Star Chefs for the dish, which was featured on the website in 2011.
And why wouldn't it be? A clean, quiet dish hiding unique layers of flavor beneath possibly the most perfect texture food can have...sounds like a star to me.
See the full list of favorites on the next page.