Chaya Sushi cooks

This raw fish is beautiful to behold, even better to eat

Dining in the raw while landlocked can be a risky proposition, a deed best performed with a well-trained gag reflex and plenty of health insurance. Most of the time the raw sea flesh isn't bad, just a little lame, blanched, or propped on little soggy wads of rice hemmed in with seaweed retaining walls.

But there are those times when sushi can turn the owner of a cast-iron gullet the color of Kate Moss' eye makeup. It's that feeling of first-bite horror when your mouth is instantly sludged with an odd, pungent flavor; as if that piece of raw fish had just returned from a week's vacation in the back of someone else's throat.

So on my first visit to Chaya Sushi and Grill in North Dallas, I bellied up to the sushi bar with a protocol steeped in caution. I would start with a cucumber roll and methodically nibble my way to a California roll before I went hardcore. Then I saw the two guys next to me served a small plate holding two pieces of ikura (salmon roe). It was a thing of beauty: Two little clusters of opulent eggs set off by deep green radish sprouts. These translucent, liquid-filled spheres shimmered like a tangle of rare orange pearls. I retrieved my order sheet and furiously checked off additional sushi offerings: California roll, maguro (tuna), uni (sea urchin roe), hamachi (yellowtail); tako (octopus); tobiko (flying fish roe); and a starter of sashimi.

The sashimi was like a small plot of sacred landscaping. Delicate bails of thin radish and carrot threads reached vertically from the plate, implying the swaying tentacles of a sea anemone. Against this backdrop were small sheets of deep red tuna and putty-toned yellowtail. To the right of this construction were folds of bright orange salmon fashioned into a half-open flower bud accessorized with radish sprouts. The deliberate chromatic interplay was stunning.

Which highlights the problem with exquisitely tailored sushi. The beauty of it shuts the gag reflex down so completely that you find yourself shamelessly choking forth a stream of obsequious adjectives before your nausea can get any traction.

But at Chaya Sushi, the sublimity in the eating is no different than that of the viewing. The tuna was dense and velvety; the hamachi tender, feathery, and nutty; the salmon smooth and rich, with none of the stringiness that sometimes afflicts it. This is among the freshest, cleanest stuff you'll find in the metroplex.

Using real crabmeat, the California roll was sweet, moist, and flush with flavor. Sliced thin, the octopus was smooth and tender--so different from the typical serving of this monster meat, which can be like chewing on a fistful of rubber grommets. My request for flying fish roe topped with a raw quail egg brought a little surprise. Instead of plopping the gooey contents over the bright orange roe, Chef Michael Wang fashioned a little nest out of bright green wasabi, pinched the top off the speckled egg, pressed it into the nest, and spooned ponzu sauce into the hole. It provided a rich, silky reprieve between bites of crunchy roe.

Uni, slithering orange sea urchin roe, is a sought-after delicacy and among the hardest of hardcore sushi offerings. In addition to visual qualities that can generate squeamishness, it's said to be such a powerful aphrodisiac when topped with the unbroken yolk of a quail egg that it's traditionally not offered to women. Chaya's uni is supple, clean, and nutty, punched-up with a sliver of mouth-puckering pungency that kicks the palate wide open to its sensuality.

And if that isn't enough, sample the Chaya roll, one of the most imaginative sectioned rice logs ever infiltrated with the flesh of the finned. Grilled freshwater eel and cucumber constitute its core, and the roll is shingled with thin slices of avocado pressed into the rice crust before the whole thing is dolloped with fluffy, bright red clumps of smelt roe and sliced. The range of creamy textures jarred with spasms of roe crunch sharing stage space with rich eel meat and clean rice juxtapositions make for good culinary drama. But it's best just to eat and forget.

If you can't rouse the intestinal fortitude to absorb the gentle frankness of raw fish, Chaya also has a full selection of robata yaki grilled stuff, which, though good, clump for clump isn't as striking as the sushi. The sirloin steak, cubes of meat grilled in ginger soy, was juicy, if a little tough--probably a cut closer to the round than the short loin. And despite the alleged sauce, there wasn't much soy-ginger savoriness to spark attention. But a side of tender, crisp grilled carrots and broccoli plus mushrooms and thin slices of potato rounded off the dish well.

The chicken and shrimp, yakitori (skewered chicken) and shrimp glazed with teriyaki sauce, was ripe with sweet, succulent shrimp with a tasty grill coating and lusciously juicy chunks of chicken. Thin strips of curling robata yaki-assaulted ika-yaki (squid) were tender and smoky. And a dessert of plum wine ice cream with intense flavor sparks from chunks of dried plum proved a good finish.

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