Since its opening in November, Tea Bar and Organic Fusion, also styled “TBO Fusion,” has made it clear that the operative word in their name is “Fusion.” The hip Westheimer location has a tea bar, and it does serve an extensive list of tasty milk teas and smoothies, but the real reason to visit is TBO’s affordable and creative takes on sushi, ramen and other Japanese specialties. The menu is dotted with unconventional and trendy additions like Taiwanese popcorn chicken, sous-vide short rib and sashimi with honey wasabi aioli and truffled ponzu sauce. Many of the experimental dishes are imperfect, and unfortunately, some of the menu’s most interesting inclusions are best left unordered. Nonetheless, the food at TBO Fusion makes for an exciting and eclectic meal.
The best of TBO’s fusion cooking manifests in the inventive and addictive appetizers. The lemon garlic popcorn chicken is flash-fried in a surprisingly light batter made from Japanese potato starch that compliments the sour and zesty seasoning. The tako yaki, or battered octopus, is perhaps the best plate on the menu. The octopus fritters have a warm, eggy filling, and are topped with sweet barbecue sauce, tangy Japanese mayo and shredded smoked tuna, which give the dish a flavor reminiscent of both a Texan barbecue pit and a Japanese seaside. Moving even further from traditional Japanese, the 72-hour sous-vide short rib uses the French sous-vide technique to achieve a much more tender product than the tradition grilling method. Perhaps the most eclectic of the appetizers, the Taiwanese sausage dish can be ordered with salsa and queso fresco in a nod to Houston’s Hispanic influence that balances the sausage’s saltiness with the creamy cheese and fresh tomato salsa.
Despite the success of the appetizers, the sushi bar seems frustratingly inferior. The problem is not that TBO’s chefs aren’t well-trained or that the fish is not fresh. On the contrary, the fish in the unseasoned sashimi plates is lush with delicate and fresh saline flavor. The problem with the sushi lies in the chefs’ tendencies to over-sauce. In the black-and-white roll, the dominant taste is not the snow crab, avocado, peppered tuna, green onion or honeyed wasabi the menu advertises, but mayo, a shame considering how many great ingredients went into the roll. The worst instance of over-saucing is in the truffle hamachi. The truffle and hamachi, known for being among the most decadent ingredients in European and Japanese cooking respectively, simply mask each other. The truffle’s earthiness obscures the hamachi’s buttery fat, and the sour yuzu and sea salt used to round out the dish clash with the smoother flavors of the truffle and the fish.
Some of the sushi chefs’ overbearing tendencies also carry over to the entrees. The ramen and the rice bowls are generally very good but tend to have too much onion, which again clashes with the natural flavor of the dish’s protein, be it short ribs, chicken or the wonderfully fatty pork belly. The seasonings on the meats themselves are far improved. The pork belly has interesting flavors of raw ginger and soy, the short ribs are marinated in sake and grilled with woody Korean spices, and the chicken’s teriyaki sauce is accented with nori and a yuzu sesame dressing. One common problem with nearly all the main dishes, however, is the addition of a cold soft-boiled egg, which can be quite off-putting and which many may prefer to have left off their dish.
In spite of its numerous problems, TBO Fusion is still a standout in a city of far too many bland Asian fusion restaurants. It is a very young restaurant, a fact that is hard to ignore as the menus are still printed on stapled printer paper. Although TBO needs some fine-tuning, problems like over-seasoning and cold eggs can be easily remedied. Combined with the friendly staff and deliberately hip vibe, the exciting food at TBO Fusion makes it a restaurant not to be passed over.