Raw pleasure

A tale of acquired tastes--namely, sushi

I once had a cat who ate cantaloupe. I didn't have to coax her to eat cantaloupe--she naturally craved it. You couldn't sit down to eat a fruit salad without Bip caterwauling until you gave her some melon.

Eddie and Edie, the current cats-in-residence, could care less about cantaloupe or any foodstuff that doesn't come in kibble shapes.

The point being that "acquired tastes" are a uniquely human phenomenon. Man--or in my case, woman--is the only creature who bothers to learn to like things. Other animals eat what they need; their choice of dinner depends on necessity, not delectability. (I guess necessity doesn't spell pizza to everyone.)

Humans constantly expand the sensations of their tastebuds, taking a second and third chance with flavors they find unpleasant at first, until they finally like them.

Unlike, say, cats, we eat food not just because of its nutrients and because it happens to be in a bowl on the floor, but because it's rare, because it's expensive (or not), because it confers status or possesses cachet, because, well, because everyone else is eating it.

That's the story of me and sushi.
When "everyone else" started eating sushi 10 or 15 years ago, I felt some trepidation. I was used to eating beef, raw as well as cooked--I'm from a meat-eating clan and a meat-eating culture. But even in a liberal-palated family, growing up in Texas meant not much fish on the table--cooked or raw.

I remember that one restaurant reviewer in Dallas around that time regularly referred to "sushi" as "bait," which reflected a common attitude. But, you know--you go out, you taste, you try, you get used to California rolls, you swallow a bite of tuna sashimi, you find you can eat anything with enough soy or wasabi on it, and before you know it, you find you like sushi, and you're eating things and creatures you never dreamed of. Distinctively human behavior.

Now, of course, everyone likes sushi. It's universally accepted, a true McFood.

Teppo, a new restaurant on Lower Greenville, is the latest sushi emporium. I know it's uncool to stereotype, but I've come to expect great style in a Japanese restaurant--the way I expect Christmas lights in a Mexican cantina. Teppo doesn't disappoint--it's all polished wood and natural stone, blond tables with the kanji for "Teppo" (the name is a kind of Japanese play on the word for "gun"--welcome to Texas) brushed in big strokes on the top, sophisticated little light fixtures, and Zen-like arrangements of stumps and rope.

Teppo is even brave enough not to be monochromatic; its bright, painted niches hold a collection of raku pottery. The music is new. The whole atmosphere is confidently hip, comfortably sleek, beautifully designed, and already a draw.

Teppo is also a little different from the usual sushi bar. For one thing, it calls itself a sushi and yakitori bar. (It's the first place in Dallas that I know of that specializes in yakitori, though many places serve a selection of skewers). And when you hear that one of its owners, Teiichi Sukurai, formerly worked at Royal Tokyo and the other, Massayuku Otaka, was formerly at Anzu, you begin to expect to taste the difference.

Rules were meant to be broken, and Teppo does things its own way, with attention to style and every detail--and a sense of adventure in the kitchen. For example, pastry is certainly an unexpected Japanese dessert, but at the end of our meal we were delighted with cream puffs on a sugar-powdered plate. Sure beats that bean ice cream.

The menu--like Gaul, one can't help adding--is divided into three parts: yakitori, rolls, and sushi/sashimi. There are blackboard specials as well. We steamed our faces in the hot towels and popped some edemame, green soybean snacks, heavily salted, along with our big Japanese beers while we filled out the order form. Hisashi, who always comes with me to eat Japanese, was again my guide. (It takes Japanese children a dozen years or more to learn their own written language--how could I presume to learn the cuisine in the brief years since my sushi conversion?)

Anyway, in Tokyo, he said, his own personal standard for yakitori was the chicken meatball (sort of like checking out the cheese enchiladas in a Mexican place), which he hardly ever saw on Dallas menus. Sure enough, our waitress' first words to us were, "We're out of chicken meatballs."

Unlike sushi, which is beautiful but scary, yakitori is a familiar, reassuring Japanese food, the girl next door, so to speak. After all, any Texan can relate to grilled meat and, being a Malouf, I have a propensity for shish kabob. Even without Hisashi's yardstick of chicken meatballs, we tried lots of yakitori. With two little bamboo skewers to an order, you needed to eat lots if you wanted to call this "dinner." The skewers, grilled over the oak charcoal that is traditional in Japan, included beef with garlic; white meat of chicken, chunks, with a piece of scallion; beef tongue, slightly chewy; chicken gizzards; and chicken strips, succulent from their marinade. Each came with a powdering of red pepper on the plate next to a dab of yellow "Japanese mustard" that tasted more like wasabi.

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