Chefs: Daniel Lee and Patrick Pham
Known for: Uchi
Cuisine: Sushi and Yakatori
The thing Daniel Lee, Patrick Pham and their restaurant partner Jonathan Tran want to make clear is that this isn’t your grandmother’s sushi and yakatori spot. This bamboo-inspired, sea-foam green and blonde wood-accented Kokoro is very much a 21st century concept, even as it nods to the past.
“We’re respecting the traditions of our childhoods, but providing those flavors on a different scale,” says Tran.
The trio have worked together in the past, crossing paths at Uchi, where they honed their sushi skills.
“I’ve been working in restaurants since I was 16,” says 29-year-old Lee, who started off in a hibachi place in high school, then briefly owned a sushi spot in Virginia. He worked in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., before coming to Houston. “This is the only thing I know how to do.”
That single-minded focus, and the team’s passion for their heritage –Lee’s is Korean, and Pham and Tran’s is Vietnamese – is evident in all the parts of Kokoro, starting with its name. In Japanese, the word means heart, and this group of young guns wants diners to understand they’re not just offering up another hand-roll or Japanese show restaurant. They’re using fresh, local seafood, as well as sourcing from around the world. They’ve got tuna coming in from Baja, Mexico and salmon from New Zealand. Japanese scallops and sea bream are also on the menu.
“We want to bring good quality fish at a decent price,” says Pham. “And our hand rolls are more like tubes, not the traditional cones people think of.”
“In traditional yakatori [grilled meat skewers], they’re grilling with a sauce called tari,” says Tran. “We’re marinating our meat in Thai curries. We’ll add on Latin flavors, like pastor-style pork. We also have what we call Japanese elotes, kind of a play on Mexican street corn.”
The menu features selections like pork belly basted in a chili-lime preparation. One chicken offering is flavored with yuzo butter. Another offers a peanut curry combination.
Lee, Pham and Tran have taken tremendous care to ensure the execution is exactly what they want it to be, even importing a grill from Japan. The half-charcoal, half-gas instrument was an expensive investment and uses Japanese charcoal, which, they agree, provides an entirely different flavor than what diners might typically encounter.
“Whatever we cook with this has so much flavor,” Lee says. “And Japanese charcoal doesn’t fire up as much as what we think of when we think charcoal. It smokes white, and that coats the food, adding an extra layer of flavor to it.”
The trio are excited to be part of Bravery, and they’ve taken great care to make the space into something they feel diners will love. All of them are happy being able to interact with their guests, explaining their processes and ideas. Lee says he wants those who sit at Kokoro’s counter to feel like friends and family.
“I’m looking forward to educating people,” says Pham. “We want to show people sushi isn’t just rolls. And I want them to see it doesn’t cost you and arm and a leg to eat good sushi. You don’t have to save up for a month to experience this.”
As Kokoro continues to find its footing, diners should look for some different elements between the lunch and dinner selections, with some evening offerings that will further expand on the trio’s concept.
They also have their own take on a Japanese dining tradition called yaki-kase, loosely translated as “trust the chef.” Koroko-kase selections will introduce diners to multiple fish options and preparations, all of them determined by the chef team. Lee, Pham and Tran think it’s a way to not only develop rapport with diners but to also showcase the sheer fun of trying new things.
Their excitement speaks not only to their own work ethic and desire to run their own business, but also to what they see as a renewed energy in Downtown, overall. While they were working to build the restaurant, they got a front-row seat to see how Market Square, and the larger city core, ebbs and flows throughout the day, from the coffee-carrying workers heading into office buildings to the throngs of lunchtime diners, to young couples and single professionals strolling the streets when offices shut their doors.
“A lot more people are coming Downtown,” says Pham. “A lot more restaurants, a lot more bars – not just franchises. It’s a great place to be.”