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Komé helps change face of Airport Boulevard dining

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com

The stretch of Airport Boulevard west of Interstate 35 once thrived as a dining and shopping destination, with Highland Mall shining as the crown jewel of commerce. The past couple of decades have seen the area fall into disrepair, but there is growing optimism for the beleaguered boulevard. With a personal warmth, creative spirit and a bit of culinary-tour-guide mentality, newcomer Komé stands as a symbol for the possibilities.       

Airport Boulevard glistened and gloomed on a chilly and desolate rainy night in late December, but the friendly greetings projected from behind the sushi bar and swinging sounds of jazz warmed us instantly as we stepped into the low-slung Komé. It immediately feels like the kind of place where everyone knows your name, but that's not "Norm" they're saying as you enter; it's "irasshaimase," a traditional Japanese salutation. The early '50s Studebaker out front looks like it could be on the cover of the Oscar Peterson record playing on the sound system, the car's character as bold and expressive as its owner, Komé sushi chef Yoshi, whose eyes glimmer with welcome and mischief.

The culinary offspring of Také Asazu and his wife, Kayo, the affordable Komé expands on the couple's former sushi trailer, Sushi-a-Go-Go, offering an extensive list of home-style Japanese dishes with nods to the flavors of Texas. The menu describes the food as Izakaya style, which could probably best be translated as Japanese pub food.

The space, with its blond wood and white chairs, relies on a minimalist design that feels clean and precise without seeming cheap or choked. The spartan elegance reflects itself in a roster of nigiri, a selection highlighted by the butterscotch glow of fresh eel and buttery fatty salmon. Unfortunately, on our multiple visits a few pieces arrived a bit too cold, freezing out some of the flavor, and a piece of magenta tuna had a slightly mangled texture. Order the sushi lunch ($12) for a sampler of tuna, salmon, white fish, mackerel and unagi with your choice of one of several rolls. I opted for the plummy tang and snap of the ume shiso cucumber roll. The lunch comes with a fish-based clear soup, rice, salad and Japanese pickles (think American pickles but more shriveled and salty).

The most intriguing small bite came not from fish but from tamago ($2), a subtly sweet and smoky custard that looks like tofu and tastes like a creamy egg. Také must be as enamored of it as I am, because the chefs actually emblazon Komé's name right on the shaped custard.

Fans of Sushi-a-Go-Go will recognize many of Komé's rolls from the trailer on Barton Springs Road. The Texas Surf and Turf roll ($7.50), with its grilled steak, tempura shrimp and spicy kick of candied jalapeño and green sauce, packs a miniature steakhouse punch. The Sunshine Roll, bright as a California spring with mango and salmon, is best suited for summertime, but its fruity radiance provides appreciated warmth in winter.

The Superstar ($10) looks like a treasure chest with the lid left open, golden tobiko tumbling out of the top like jewels. Their crackle and spill provide texture to the fresh shrimp and squid roll that is brought to life by a deep burst of ume.

For a couple who first earned notice for their raw fish, it came as a surprise that the best food coming out of the Asazus' restaurant is not the sushi but the Izakaya dishes. The tulip kara-age ($5) arrive like fried chicken lollipops, the sweet, moist dark meat shrouded by the crispy umber of deeply fried skin. Boiled octopus and shrimp give plump protein pull to the refreshing sunomono ($6). The vinegar broth-based salad, flecked with seaweed and cucumber for crunch and color, is good enough to drink, an idea encouraged by our friendly and health-conscious server. Excited to introduce us to unfamiliar dishes, the server also suggested Tako-wasa ($5), a raw octopus dish with wasabi and quail eggs. The small pieces of octopus had the texture of a slightly frozen grape or edible Super Ball covered in a spicy and slimy membrane from the egg and powerful wasabi. It's a dish I would not order again but one I am glad to have tried.

The traditional tonpei-yaki ($7) looks like an omelet, with its chunks of grilled pork and shredded cabbage folded inside a fluffy blanket of eggs topped with pickled ginger masquerading as red pepper slices. The succulent pork and rich eggs give a savory taste of comfort food that is given piquancy by the ginger and crunch from cabbage.

The pickled ginger and pork appear again in the Tonkotsu ramen ($9). My dining companion at one of my lunch visits lived in Osaka and had been craving ramen. After enjoying the milky broth, with its supple fresh noodles, tender bamboo shoots and colorful fried onions, he declared the Tonkotsu the best ramen dish he has found in Austin.

The flat-top grill at Komé gets mixed marks for its treatment of fish. Grizzled silver skin with dark campfire hues encased the grilled mackerel ($9) that left little impression, outside of its notoriously oily (in the good-for-you way) and fishy meat. While there is something to be said for simplicity, the grilled salmon at lunch ($12), though cooked to a nice fall-apart-at-the-fork flakiness, lacked finesse and was pressed as thin as a fast-food burger.

The biggest disaster came from the fryer. Massive shrimp, while fried to a nice golden crunch, suffered from an overabundance of gooey breading. Frying shrimp just down the street from Quality Seafood is a risky proposition, like moving a baseball team to the Bronx. If you're going to do it, you better bring your A-game. Komé does its best to redeem itself on the fried end of things with the camembert tempura ($7), a sinful treat of creamy cheese lightly fried and drizzled with honey. Though it appears as an appetizer on the menu, it makes for a perfect dessert.

The warmth with which you're welcomed at Komé is mirrored at the end of the meal as you head to the door. Though their heads are down as they tend to their art-as-meal, the chefs sense your departure, pause to look up and again offer their cheers. Rugged Airport Boulevard awaits as you leave the amiable environment, but a feeling bordering on hope lingers, a sense that Komé may be a catalyst of change that might transform a long-overlooked part of town.

modam@statesman.com; 912-5986

Komé

4917 Airport Blvd. 712-5700, kome-austin.com

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Hours: Lunch: Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Saturday, Noon to 4 p.m. Dinner: Monday-Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to `last dinner'

Prices: Nigiri (one piece) $2-$9. Small plates $3-$7.50. Big plates $5-$12.

Notes: Beer, wine and sake available.

What the rating means: The 10-point scale is an average of weighted scores for food, service, value, ambience and overall dining experience, with 10 being the best.

The Bottom Line: Having proved that you can provide tasty, fresh sushi from a trailer, Komé owners Také and Kayo Asazu are helping to change the face of dining on Airport Boulevard with their home-style Japanese cooking and friendly environment.