By Amy McCarthy
By Scott Reitz
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
I've been told that men are simple creatures—assuming "my eyes are up here" means something along the lines of "simple." And a pig is, after all, a creature.
Well, not so much been told. Let's just say I've heard second-hand—yeah, that's it—some of these untoward remarks. On the plus side, most of us guys are forgiving sorts. Really. For instance, there I was, sitting in a dark corner of Tei An watching as an Asian family reverently slurped up their noodles. Such manners are considered ill by most Americans. Even at non-elitist tables, mothers scorn that sloppy inhaling sound. In Japan, however, it's perfectly acceptable to really get in there and s-l-u-r-r-r-p. At the same time, my dinner companion struggled with a bowl of udon served in murky broth. The long, gooey strands slithered from her chopsticks, slipping one after another onto the table, accompanied by little screams of futility. Her solution involved picking up wayward noodles by hand.
OK, probably not the most couth of behaviors but what the hell. Tall, blond...no big deal.
Besides, this is more in the nature of a cautionary tale. While most Japanese restaurants in Dallas wrap themselves around sushi, Tei An specializes in noodles, spaghetti-like soba and the larger, though still wriggly udon—difficult little bastards for chopstick novices. And although the restaurant occupies part of that steel and glass oxymoron known as One Arts Plaza, the room itself is serene, almost respectful. It's not the place for noisy, amateur high jinks.
No, Tei An is an authentic restaurant, a real restaurant, one with a sense of purpose. Owner Teiichi Sakurai ditched his groundbreaking destinations, Teppo and Tei Tei Robata Bar, to study the mysteries of soba. Aficionados of the buckwheat noodles will even drink the water leftover after cooking, swirled into whatever remains of the dipping sauces.
Of course, the Japanese consider karaoke a form of entertainment.
The sauce mixes are not bad, though. The restaurant's apparent sarashina-style soba lends a faint musty flavor to the water—enough to calm each sauce without washing out the character. Tsuyu, a traditional soy condiment, resembles fermented toast. The charred sesame variation looks something like squid ink but clings to a mild taste under the initial acrid singe. Their walnut sauce etches a sharpened edge into the earthy cooking residue. These are not, mind you, robust sauces. The prize here is subtlety—flavors drape lightly over soba. Enjoyment comes from the noodle's unique flavor and inscrutable texture. Perhaps that's why the ritual of sipping the dregs emerged. One can fully appreciate each sauce only as a drink.
For locals, the Texas pecan dip may leave the most lasting impression: a soft, nutty, gritty base barely muzzling its harsher, bitter tone. It's one of Tei An's few nods to fusion. Oh, they approach the ridiculous once...make that twice, the second being a deliberately whimsical soba carbonara, which hardly counts against them. The kitchen's most obvious flirtation with trendy ingredients is green tea-laced shrimp tempura. Dark streaks from the calming, health-giving, life-extending, acne-clearing, solve-everything leaf seem to undermine the tempura crust, turning it into a sodden mass. Hell, why not go the distance: green tea tempura with pomegranate reduction and eggplant caviar? Fortunately, Sakurai refuses to fall for the Uptown trap, where ingredients double as buzzwords. And he employs a brilliantly conceived yuzu emulsion to rescue the shrimp. Tangy, full of grit and ripe citrus, the sauce awakens dulled shellfish and draws out the dry, grassy flavor of green tea.
Perhaps curry soba approaches that fuzzy line between authenticity and fusion, as well. But here "curry" becomes a carefully balanced stock, revealing itself in layers—husky, almost soil-like at first, yielding to a bitter streak followed by a wave of heat that ebbs away reluctantly. Duck soba is more appropriately dutiful. Immersed in thinned-out, soupy tsuyu, the flavors are dense but courtly. The mellow envelope of creamy earth nipped by fermented zest, but sealed with the smoky haze of grilled negi (green onion).
In other words, it's pretty good.
Curry and duck exemplify hot soba. The Japanese, however, prize cold noodles served with dipping sauce. Cooking and bathing soba according to a precise ritual lends that confounding stretchy-delicate consistency. Udon, the variety that so vexed my companion one evening, is more common stuff: thick, pale and chewy. It also leaves sticky trails on the table. We ordered it with mixed tempura, this time sans tea and thus gossamer crisp.
Sorry, no ramen at this place—a disappointment to OU grads, I'm sure. But I guess if one really craves processed food, the restaurant's presentation of fishcake would suffice. Kamaboko sounds nasty, like American grocery store "krab" or something spewed from the Bass-a-Matic: junk whitefish of dubious ancestry, pureed and pressed and shaped into loaves. Instead of packaging this delicacy in cans marked Friskies, Japanese chefs subject it to steam, tightening the mass into a firm, compact, tasteless whole. Tei An's kitchen renders this perfectly. Sloshed through soy sauce, it actually pulls woody, cindered flavors. Fishcake is, however, an acquired taste, one usually encountered on this continent in soups.