Popping the Lid

Pandora Japanese Cuisine is minimal, and that's the least we can say

"At Pandora, a spirit of modernity gives new life to the elemental purity of Japanese tradition. Inside, find the décor is minimal, but spectacular where the emphasis is on fresh taste and artistic presentation of Pandora's menu. Pandora offers three distinctly different dining experiences--sushi bar, robata grill, and sinfully good Japanese food." --Pandora Web site

Dear Potential Dallas Tourist:

This is a peculiar manner in which to introduce a Dallas restaurant, I admit. After all, minimalism, even the modern kind, is not something Dallas flaunts, unless you count gentlemen's clubs. And even then...

Pandora: minimalist food, minimalist décor and, apparently, minimalist diners
Tom Jenkins
Pandora: minimalist food, minimalist décor and, apparently, minimalist diners

Look hard, though, a little west of Six Flags, to be exact, and you'll find some minimalism in museums. OK, you have to go to Fort Worth, but people use Dallas hotels as a launching pad for Billy Bob's all the time, and the minimal museum stuff is not far from the honky-tonk. But that's for another bureau. Of course, it would be accurate to describe the décor in the Book Depository as minimal. Have you seen this yet? It's a really excellent attraction near the grassy knoll where a drama involving Soviet spies, exploding Cuban cigars, mob molls and Oliver Stone played out. Jack Ruby plays a role, too. Do you know him? It's rumored he used to breakfast at the Thomas Avenue Beverage Company, another really excellent Dallas attraction. You should eat there. Our famous homegrown party producer Steve Kemble (he's a star on TLC's reality show Sheer Dallas) named his dogs Jack and Ruby. Steve's not into minimal décor either.

You might also scoff at the notion that anything in Dallas embraces "elemental purity," old or new. "Yeah, right," you say. "Elemental purity in Dallas rests solely in karats and D cups."

OK, so let's drop the pretenses: Minimalism and elemental purity make good copy. They're euphemisms for "hip," "alluring" and "vibe." That's why Pandora is not a concrete bunker with white walls, two-color paint-splatter art and fluffy pillow seating on bog peat floors. It's tucked next to a nightclub called Purgatory (this is another really excellent attraction as you can enact your own Judgment Day proceedings while drunk). The sidewalk leading up to the roped Pandora portal is painted red. Is this minimal décor?

Step inside. See the thick bamboo stalks in the vestibule as you stroll across a floor tiled in slate. A sleek stone waterfall with votives dotting the ledges leads into the dining room. Facing you is a glass case holding a black Japanese shogun suit of armor against a red silk backdrop (disengage your camera's flash bar to avoid glare). How is this minimalism? The waterfall has no water. Shrewd.

Turn left into the dining room and you see something even more minimalist. It's not the neutral travertine tile floor, pocked with little divots and holes no doubt from minimalist sandals with spiky heels. It's not the glass panels, the wood veneer or the wood ceiling above the sushi bar. No, it's the absence of guests.

The sushi bar is angular, though, with fine seating. It has a Plexiglas surface buckled near one seam, creating what we believe is the first sushi-bar speed bump (again, disengage the flash bar). Pandora even has touches of irony. Among the elemental purity, you'll notice a couple of foils. First, the sushi chefs are not Japanese, or even Asian. This is not a problem. After all, here in Dallas you can get good brisket from grill masters bred in Times Square. Second, there are no hot towels provided to wipe your hands, though this may be just a clever stroke of artistic tension between purity and minimalism. Feel free to wipe your hands on your capris. Third, seaweed salad arrives well before chopsticks or flatware, though you may want to avoid your capris after sampling Pandora's seaweed finger foods.

But Pandora does have what we believe is the first sushi-bar rear-projection high-definition saltwater aquarium. Fish swim around a coral reef while bubbles percolate in the background. Sometimes the backdrop changes color and the fish black out, becoming swimming shadows. A separate video screen next to the aquarium displays tropical island scenes. This is another really excellent attraction, as Dallas doesn't have many beaches if you don't count green mud.

The sushi holds its own. Sure, some of the fish is warm. And though tender, the tuna is fuzzy (fur is good in Dallas). But for elemental purity, go with the uni. It's delicious. Supple rust orange layers are gently deposited inside the ring of nori. It's smooth, cool and nutty. And if the thought of having sea urchin sex organs roiling around in your mouth gets you wincing, remind yourself uni is a minimalist aphrodisiac.

But perhaps the best example of Pandora minimalism is the flounder sashimi. It's nothing but naked creamy white fish, cut into tapered petals and arranged in a sweeping arch across a square plate. Sharp bamboo leaves bisect the plate's corners (note: Bamboo grows wild in most Dallas restaurants, but it has yet to be exploited as a cash crop). The surface of the fish is crowned with a tiny slice of jalapeño bull's-eyed with a dot of red pepper sauce.

Travel into the dining room, and you'll discover a number of attractions, including high-backed chairs with contemporary edgework as well as high-backed, cozy banquettes among an array of creams and browns. An idle robata bar is tucked in the back. Other tables have benches with pillows for cushioning.

More excellent attractions: Pandora has a sake lounge, with deep red walls and dusky nooks where minimalism is submerged to a higher order; namely, implied debauchery. Pandora offers an array of sakes, all of them cold, with tasting notes like this: "Super excellent, honeysuckle, tuberose, Fuji apple and spiced pear." There is also wine called cat piss. Try to find that in Tulsa.

But elemental purity swerves off its minimalist rails to follow the "hip" culinary rules, which say there must be fusion. Yet the fusings are more subtle than most. Behold the hoisin duck nachos: round cool corn tortillas with scraps of cold duck (not the drink kind), caramelized leeks and a pepper treatment that snuffs any chill factor. Chips are slightly flaccid, perhaps because they were sitting in cold duck for a while before they were delivered.

Much better, and a much better example of elemental purity, is the whole robata grilled squid. An entire animal is spread on a rectangular plate and sectioned like some sort of prop illustrating vivisection depravity. The body is reduced to a repeating sequence of flat loops; the tentacles around the head are severed into a neat cluster, as if they were clinging to the possibility of unity. The meat is firm but tender. The flavor is clean and unadulterated but with a clean puff of smoky bitterness.

Marinated flank steak is topped with a truffle aioli, which adds a rich, unctuous nuttiness. But the meat slacks. Sliced sections are dry and tough, with flavor that seems to have seeped away, leaving a desiccated steak husk. Plus, ordered medium rare, it arrives battleship gray. Greasy fried onion strings are on one corner of the plate, while sautéed mushrooms--tight, separate and firm--occupy the other.

And therein lies the challenge. Pandora service is plodding and unevenly paced. The kitchen moves like a cruise ship negotiating a right turn, this even though there is virtually no one in the place save for sushi chefs and high-definition rear-projection fish. But it does have a genuine shogun suit of armor and a waterless waterfall. Don't forget to pop up the flash bar for that last one.

Sincerely,

Dallas Ministry of Tourism Truth 2208 Main St., Suite A. Open for lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday. Open for dinner 5-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Friday & Saturday. $$$

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