Steakhouse Brings Korean Fine Dining to Houston Heights
The first question Jason Cho, owner of newly opened Karne Steakhouse in the Heights, asked me was, “Where do you like to eat Korean food in Houston?” My answers were Korea Garden and Seoul Garden, restaurants on Long Point, a street well-established as Houston’s makeshift KoreaTown. “Me too. I still eat at those places,” he said.” To that point, Karne is not meant to be comparable. In Karne, Cho and executive chef and partner Yurum “KP” Nam have created a dining experience that is their own, woven with personal narratives of their shared Korean roots, their respective times in New York’s restaurant scene, and Cho’s Houston upbringing.
Jason, along with wife Mary Cho, own other Korean concepts, including Dak and Bop and the Galleria location of Tom n Toms Coffee. Nam is a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America. He started his career in Korea, then emigrated to the United States where he worked at several well-known restaurants in New York, including The Modern and Gramercy Tavern. Before teaming up with Cho, he owned his own Korean fusion restaurant, Zusik, in the West Village.
Karne officially opened in early November, but it took over three years for Cho and Nam to bring it to fruition, spending almost a year of that time creating the menu, sourcing ingredients and ensuring that the dishes and drinks truly expressed their vision of fine Korean cuisine.
Located in the Heights at 2805 White Oak, Karne is a 6,000-square-foot space, with a long bar that runs the length of the restaurant on one side. On the other side is the sleek dining room filled with tall, brown-leather booths, and imported marble tables. Houston Food Finder was invited to try some of the offerings. As we were led to our table, I stopped to take a picture of the dry-aging room for meats aglow in hot pink lights. I could tell we were in for a treat.
The menu starts with the “Ocean Treasures” section — decadent options of jumbo shrimp, oysters, caviar and soon-to-be-available hot and cold seafood towers. We tried the jumbo marinated shrimp ($15), raw, soy-marinated shrimp served with Meyer lemon aioli and topped with tobiko. The sweet and briny shrimp were a rich brown color thanks to the soy marinade, which also softened the shrimps’ texture slightly. It was the perfect start to showcasing Karne’s robust Korean flavors.
Appetizers’ range from more traditional — such as crispy tteok ($15), rice cake and fish cake with scallion oil, tossed in a house tteokbokki sauce — to the playful — Tuna Tartare Tacos ($15) with yellowfin tuna and artichoke compote, tobiko and sweet soy in a crispy wonton shell. Almost every table ordered the Black Sesame Korean Fried Chicken ($15), and our server enthusiastically vouched for it being his favorite appetizer. The pieces of popcorn chicken are battered in black sesame and set atop a bed of lemon aioli. The sesame added a distinct color to the chicken and a nutty flavor you don’t often get in similar fried chicken dishes, the only quibble about the dish is the need for a bit more seasoning. The Rice Wine Mussels ($20) is also a great option. The mussels are steamed in rice wine broth and served with toasted milk bread to sop it with. My favorite appetizer of the night was the Kured Pork Belly ($18). A slab of smoked pork belly is cured in Korean bean paste and served alongside a micro green kimchi salad and drizzled with maple cream. It comes whole and is cut tableside. The prominent smokiness and saltiness of the pork was offset by the woodsy, caramel sweetness of the maple cream. Eating it with the kimchi was a delightful juxtaposition of flavors.
Korean barbecue restaurants are typically outfitted with tabletop grills used for cooking the meat, which can leave your clothes with a lingering smell. Cho has installed a reverse ventilation system that moves the smoke downward and out through the vents. He assured us that we would walk out without worrying about our dry-cleaning. All diners have to do is sit back and have a trained server grill the meat at their tables to the desired temperature. You do have the option to grill the meat yourself but the full service is part of the experience. Guests can order cuts of meat à la carte, including American or Japanese Wagyu, prime beef, marinated or smoked beef. There are also a handful of other options that include a Hot Stone Bibimbap ($22) or Wagyu Kimchi Fried Rice ($25). However, the ideal option for first-timers, or for anyone who wants to be able to sample five choice cuts, is the Karnivore Platter ($60/person, 2 person minimum per table).
Ahead of the meats, a stream of banchan arrived at the table. It’s arguably the best part of Korean barbecue. Banchan, which directly translates as “side dish”, are small portions of sides that accompany the meal. Typical banchan includes lightly seasoned vegetables that are pickled, fermented, steamed or blanched. These dishes are meant to complement the main meal, adding acidity, cutting through the fattiness of meats or cooling down spices. Karne’s banchan are all made in-house, including pickled onions, yu choy kimchi, traditional Napa cabbage kimchi, and pickled burdock root. The platter also comes with a hearty, pleasantly sour kimchi stew, an egg souffle, a scallion salad, two house salts and dipping sauces. You’ll be surprised to find that rice is not served unless you specifically ask for it, but you will receive an array of red leaf lettuce, perilla leaves, cucumbers, and pickled radish wraps. You don’t really miss the rice.
Our Karnivore Platter included prime filet mignon, prime hanger steak, marinated chuck flap, marinated rib meat and smoked short rib. Our server suggested we cook one cut of meat at a time, allowing us to really savor the flavors and distinguish between each. Every cut was tender, and didn’t need much else, but my perfect bite was a piece of marinated rib meat wrapped in a perilla leaf with a dab of ssamjang (a thick, spicy paste of soybean paste and Korean chili paste, garlic, and sesame oil) and a sliver of the pickled burdock root. Combined, the pungent leaf, salty ssamjang, tangy, slightly bitter root and the tender, juicy grilled meat was a flavor bomb. The smoked short rib was cooked last; an expert move because the smoky flavor was really pronounced. If served at any other point, you wouldn’t be able to enjoy the milder flavors of the other cuts. One of the house made sauces served alongside the meats is a barbecue sauce that, Cho notes, is an ode to New York’s Peter Luger’ Steakhouse’s steak sauce. The sauce was a perfect pairing with the smoky short rib; perhaps also an ode to Texas barbecue.
As we began to hit the proverbial wall, Cho told us that they had just rolled out some dessert options due to customer demand — something they did not originally plan to have on their menu, since sweets and desserts are not a typical part of the Korean dining experience. Chef Nam created two dishes that again marries traditional fine dining with Korean ingredients. The flourless chocolate cake was rich, dark and dense and had subtle heat from gochujang. The Black Sesame Crème Brûlée was a pleasant surprise, while the brittle top was quintessential crème brulee, the custard’s flavor was unexpected. It had just a hint of sweetness from the natural flavors of the black sesame, was aromatic and nutty, and the flavors seemed to open up more with each bite. It was a lovely way to end the meal.
The beverage program is overseen by bar director, Robert Waltrip. The wine menu has both by-the-glass and bottle selections that span the globe, from a French Bordeaux to a Mexican Chardonnay, and an expansive liquor collection that includes bourbon, absinthe, mezcal and Japanese whiskey. But the real fun happens with their classic cocktails infused with Korean and Asian flavors. We tried the Rose Coloured Glasses($14) made with Hangar One Vodka, Soho Lychee Liqueur, lychee juice, lime juice, raspberry, rose essence and orange bitters. This was not your average lychee martini. It was lightly sweet, and the rose essence gave a hint of floral in the back of your palate. Other cocktails on the list include the Gochu Margarita ($18) with gochugaru (Korean chili)-infused tequila and the Jeju Negroni ($16) with campari, gin and pandan cordial. If you want “something a little more”, there are four smoked cocktails that come with some pomp and circumstance, as they arrive under a glass smoking cloche and are unveiled in front of the customer. The cocktails under this section are definitely an indulgence with prices ranging from $28 – $34. The El Dorado Milk Punch ($32) is a conversation piece, as it looks like a glass of liquid gold. It is made from Hennessy VS, Plantation Pineapple Rum, Nova Foga Cachaça, lemon, spices and The Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter Bitters and finished with gold luster. You tasted something different every sip; fruity and then a little spicy and a little tart. It went down dangerously easy.
It was a weekday visit, but there were several other patrons seated throughout our time there. Service was good, as was timing and pacing of grilling the meat. Cho knows the area and the clientele, and continues to listen to what they want, like adding the desserts and having a separate bar menu, because Korean barbecue is not ideal for solo or bar dining. The bar menu offers additional decadent dishes, including seafood pancake, smoked galbi steak and foie gras. Karne also boasts four private rooms that fit up to 20 guests and that can be used to partake in chef Nam’s tasting menu.
Cho and Nam’s vision of showcasing the communal spirit of Korean food through a fine dining experience is evident throughout the beautiful space and in their menu. Hearty, comforting and robust food can still be elevated cuisine and Karne is a great example of that. I’m sure I’ll be back for a Smoked Old-Fashioned at the bar soon enough.
Karne is currently open for dinner Sunday through Thursday from 5 to 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 5 to 11 p.m. Reservations are recommended.
Minh Truong is an avid lover of the Houston food scene and has written about it since 2011, starting as a freelance contributor for the Houston Press. She never stopped exploring all that Houston has to offer, and after a seven-year hiatus returned to writing about it, this time with Houston Food Finder.