Bait yer hooks

My first salmon-fishing expedition in the Pacific Ocean may never have happened if it weren't for a black-market guide named Jeb. After hearing me and my friend reject a $100-per-person fee from a guide at a local bait shop, Jeb followed us to our car.

"I'll do it for fifty bucks," he said, slapping his billfold on our car window. "I don't have a license, but I've got all the equipment. You with me?"

At 6 a.m. the next morning, my friend and I were on the beach with our baseball caps and tubes of sunscreen. Jeb drove up in a rotting old Jeep Wagoneer with an aluminum boat hitched to the rear. A retired auto worker living in Idaho, Jeb Winnebagoed to the Oregon coast each summer with his wife to relax and do some bootleg guiding for sea fishermen. He had us climb into the boat while he loosened the latches that secured it to the trailer.

After backing the boat into the surf, he jerked the Jeep into drive and punched the accelerator. The boat slipped off the trailer and into the waves, bobbing uncontrollably. I cursed myself for having eaten breakfast. Jeb jumped out of the jeep, sloshed through the cold surf, and hopped into the boat before starting the engine.

Jeb was a full-service black-market guide: He baited our hooks, cast our line, instructed us on proper high-seas barfing etiquette, and netted and de-hooked our fish. We felt like true outdoor sportsmen. And after we caught our limit, Jeb pointed the bow toward the beach and opened her up full throttle, much to our sea-nauseated astonishment. We slammed into the shore and bounced across the sand while he screamed "yahooeee!" and laughed at our bulging eyes and open mouths.

Back at the RV park, Jeb slapped our fish onto a long wooden table and rounded up a few kids--slipping them fillet knives and cash--to clean our catch. This was a profoundly shrewd move on Jeb's part, as client sea sickness and salmon innards can be potent mismatches. After the boys finished with our fish, they handed us a cooler of fresh salmon fillets. They also handed us a bucket of salmon fins, tails, and entrails.

"What do we do with this?" I asked.
The kid looked at me, dumbfounded: "You goin' crabbin' tonight, ain't ya?"
That's exactly what was going through my mind when I asked our perplexed-looking server at Matsu what it was that she'd just placed on my table.

"Salmon tempura," she said.
But to me--except for the batter-fried tan--what I saw in the bowl didn't look much different than that bucket of crab-trap fodder. I admit I may be guilty of cultural ignorance here; for all I know, this complimentary appetizer of fins, tails, and spine segments with bony layers of fatty, gelatinous fish flesh might well knock the socks clean off the Emperor's feet. But to me this stuff tasted like...well, let's just say it tastes a hell of a lot better processed through a Pacific crab.

Matsu Il Bun Gi Restaurant, a Japanese-Korean cuisine hybrid on Greenville near Interstate 635, is the second restaurant for restaurateur Soo Kang, who also runs Po Jang ma Cha, a Korean eatery on Royal Lane. In many ways, the inclusion of these two cuisines under one roof is entirely fitting.

Korean food is, in a sense, a merging of Japanese and Chinese techniques, though it relies less on fish and seafood than does Japanese cuisine and less on oils and fats than Chinese food. It's spicier, more robust fare, rich in red pepper, garlic, scallions, roasted sesame seeds, and, at times, sugar.

It's been said that Japanese cuisine is to Asia what French cuisine is to Europe: the ultimate in culinary elegance and artistic visual display. But while the Japanese focus on painstaking preparation and presentation, the Koreans emphasize bold flavors.

I decided to experiment with the compatibility of these cuisines by ordering a Korean entree and some sushi. This is when I discovered that ordering is no simple task at Matsu. The servers know precious little English (charming, perhaps, in an ethnic neighborhood, but frustrating in strip-mall, highway-ramp utopia), and the menu has no entree descriptions for the Korean offerings. I ordered Bul Go Ki, which after 10 minutes of two-way, monosyllabic bantering, I learned was a beef dish.

It came with a salad--remarkably, a tiny bowl of shredded iceberg lettuce in Thousand Island dressing--miso soup (made from dissolved soy bean paste), and a few appetizers, which included two different seaweeds; dried, lightly marinated anchovies; bean sprouts; and kimchi. While the seaweed and bean sprouts were fairly good, if unremarkable, the tiny anchovies--which with some hydration and a protein shake diet would have made respectable salmon bait--tasted a bit rancid.

The kimchi, however, was astonishing. I've never had much use for cabbage other than as sauerkraut on a Chicago hot dog. But kimchi has got to be one of the best foods ever invented by man, and if my body could take the punishment, I'd eat the stuff every day. Literally meaning "sunken vegetable," kimchi is a pickled cabbage and radish dish fermented (sunken) in a brine with chili, garlic, onion, and ginger. Matsu's kimchi is fresh, succulent, and packed with tangy, zesty flavors.

A disappointment, the Bul Go Ki--thick slices of gristly, slightly sweet beef on a bed of onions--would have been a culinary breakthrough if it had been sliced thinner, squirted with Cheez Whiz, and shoe-horned into an Italian roll--the world's first Korean Philly cheesesteak sandwich.

Matsu's sushi was another mixed bag. When it comes to sushi, there's very little room for critical evaluation. After all, this is raw fish we're talking here, so there are really only three classifications: spectacular, terrific, and terrifying. This is because when a piece of raw fish has even the slightest off-flavor, you can be sure it isn't because the chef used too much coriander or A1; it's because your hamachi is probably cultivating mad cow disease. With this in mind, I always start my sushi order with hard-core stuff like uni (sea urchin roe), with the thought that if the uni is perfectly fresh and supple with a clean, nutty flavor, chances are the rest of the meal will be stellar. Matsu had no uni, so our server subbed it with a salmon-hamachi (yellowtail) hand roll that, with a slight staleness, hovered dangerously between terrific and terrifying.

The other pieces we tried, though, were mostly terrific with perfectly fluffed, crisp masago (smelt roe); stringy yet flavorful tako (octopus); plus spectacular unagi (grilled freshwater eel). The California roll, on the other hand, was a bland glue ball marred by dried, stale rice and an unpleasant fishy taste. After sampling Matsu's desperately mediocre sushi and hot food lunch buffet, we discovered that glue-ball rice was a house specialty, not to mention gooey tempura vegetables and these horrendous fried crab claws that came glazed with a slimy batter coating of some kind.

Matsu means "pine" in Japanese, and the restaurant is well-endowed with an attractive array of clean, blond-wood fixtures. But until this restaurant applies some Japanese fastidiousness to the food and service, it'll be little more than a Dallas bait shop.

Ichiban means "prime" in Japanese, and after a couple of visits to Sushi Ichiban Japanese Restaurant, just a couple of doors down from Matsu, we wondered if perhaps a lawyer from the Texas Attorney General's office might want to stop by to check on a consumer advertising miscue.

The first hint of trouble--other than our long waits getting seated and being served--was the sake. Good sake should always be served cold or warm; only bad sake is served hot. Ours was served scalding, which is fine. But when I brought the tiny cup to my mouth, I was overwhelmed by this intense sour milk stench--was I about to drink Limburger cheese extract? When I protested, our server explained that this was characteristic of the particular brand, though in 10 years of dedicated sake sipping, I'd never encountered anything this unappetizing.

The sushi proved just as horrifying: the uni had a milky cast; the tekka maki (tuna roll) had disturbing off flavors as did the hamachi; the sake (salmon) was sliced much too thick and took forever to chew; and the California roll, with the same sour milk stench as the sake, was so soggy that when you bit into it, it leaked.

Believe it or not, we returned to this three-year-old restaurant with tan formica decorative touches for a second visit to see if it was possible to sustain this level of food quality. We found it somewhat better: The piping hot sake, though not stellar, at least didn't offend; the sushi, while it didn't invoke the gag reflex, was still marred by off-putting flavors; and the chicken teriyaki was rich, tasty, and moist, though a bit fatty. The side of bean sprouts, however, was limp, soggy, and an unappetizing shade of brown. How can any self-respecting chef let this stuff leave the kitchen? Are we witnessing the battle of the Upper Greenville bait shops?

Matsu Il Bun Gi Restaurant. 12255 Greenville at Interstate 635. (972) 889-7700. Open Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m.-10 p.m; Friday & Saturday 11 a.m.-11 p.m.

Sushi Ichiban Japanese Restaurant. 12101 Greenville, Suite 112. (972) 437-9514. Open for lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Open for dinner Monday-Thursday 5:30 p.m.-10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m.; Sunday 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m.

Matsu Il Bun Gi:
Miso soup $1.50
Deluxe sushi $25.95
Bul Go Ki $12.95
Sushi & hot food lunch buffet $7.95

Sushi Ichiban:
Miso soup $1.50
Sashime salad $6.50
Sushi dinner with pickled vegetables and soup $13.95
Chicken teriyaki $9.95


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