Restaurant concept development is difficult for diners to comprehend. People like Phil Romano appear to function solely from gut instinct followed by blunt execution. Then there's Henderson Avenue czar Tristan Simon, who seems to germinate his concepts on a bed of meticulously plowed spreadsheets fertilized by heaps of financial and psychoanalysis, exerting pressure on a square foot of dining room space until it blooms profits. Yet sometimes a peek into the world of restaurant concept creation calls to mind that famous Otto Von Bismarck quote that's invoked whenever Congress gets silly: "Laws are like sausages. It's better not to see them being made."
Not that the development process of Chaucer's Steaks & Sushi is as distressing as watching a pig go from Babe to bratwurst, but it perhaps makes less sense. What does Geoffrey Chaucer, the medieval English poet, have to do with sushi? Though cryptic at first glance, the similarities become obvious with some thought and sake: Sushi is raw, and so is Chaucer, at least in his famously raunchy Canterbury Tales.
Take The Miller's Tale, a bawdy account of sexual intrigue where two clerks vie for a young carpenter's wife. The first clerk, Nicholas, gets to her first, and they agree to consummate the affair. But the second clerk, Absalom, continues to woo her, climbing up to her window to steal a kiss. But Nicholas tricks him, putting his "arse" out the window to meet Absalom's lips. "Speak, sweet bird, I don't know where you are." Nicholas then let fly a fart, as strong as a thunderclap, so that Absalom was almost blinded by its force. Absalom is clever and prepared, though, and he brands poor Nicholas' arse with a hot iron.
No piece of sushi is fresher or rawer than this scene of seduction gone awry. Even hard-core uni (sea urchin roe), which Chaucer's had stenciled on its specials board (though it wasn't available), can't compete with The Miller's Tale.
Yet Chaucer's isn't a clever harmonization of the bawdy with the raw. It's stranger than that: a restaurant in a disturbing space-time warp, or at least a schizophrenic fit. On the surface this may sound absurd. Steaks and sushi aren't an odd marriage, as the brood of Japanese steak houses and sushi/kobe beef purveyors in Dallas can attest. But this is not an ordinary steak-sushi bond.
The dining room, sunken a few feet below the Belt Line Road street level in a former Fuddruckers, is outfitted in suburban model-home faux medieval. Simulated stone and mortar arches and castle turrets share space with thick draperies and coats of arms. Full suits of armor spar with lighted beer and vodka signs. Off to the side, seemingly oblivious to the joust and chivalry cavalcade, is the sushi bar, outfitted with Japanese characters and baubles (and its own service staff).
How did such discordance evolve? General manager Robert Chon says Chaucer's was a case of design-foraging-for-concept, or perhaps concept-straddling-design to the point of acute groin stress. Quite simply, the designer let loose with a creative medieval flurry and decided the handiwork resembled Geoffrey Chaucer's castle, hence the name.
From that, says Chon, owner Frank Chun (owner of Sushi Yokohama) decided he needed a dual concept, one that could accommodate the broad tastes of extended families and not let anyone feel left out. "The mothers or the grandmothers might not be fond of sushi," Chon says. The solution, they decided, was to combine sushi with steak. "It does confuse quite a few people when they see the name Chaucer's outside and they see sushi and grill on the bottom of that name," Chon admits. "It doesn't really fit."
Strangely, the thing that doesn't fit, the part that might terrorize mothers and grandmothers, is the part that actually works: sushi. The selections are for the most part fresh and supple. Tobiko (flying fish eggs) is bright orange and fluffy. Taco (octopus) is chewy and savory; though silky, the hamachi (yellow tail) was a little fishy. Yet the salmon skin roll was clean with deliciously savory and strong briny flavors mingling with a distinct and delicate embedded crunch. Spicy tuna rolls would have also scored high marks if the rice sheath hadn't been stiff.
Miso soup was intense and clumsy instead of light and savory, almost as if a beef bouillon cube had been deployed--a medieval steak house effect, perhaps.
Leave the sushi bar with its faux copper surface embedded with leaf reliefs, and the ride can be as treacherous as Absalom's kiss quest, though there are some islands of relative safety interspersed.
Mediterranean salad was a large chopped fluff heap of greens (heavy on the frisée), multicolored bell pepper, tomato, feta cubes, hearts of palm specks, artichoke and black and kalamata olive fragments. The dressing was tame, but there were no browning leaf edges, and the tomatoes were fresh and racy--as racy as The Wife of Bath, another of Chaucer's lunges at ribaldry, detailing a woman's escapades across five husbands: I was so made that I could not withhold my chamber of Venus from a good fellow. I still have the mark of Mars on my face, and also in another private place.
Chilean sea bass had the mark of grill on its face, but that didn't make it any more tempting. Bathed in a wasabi-ginger beurre blanc (wasabi/ginger flavors were imperceptible), the meat was slithery, almost a slimy mush, with a streak of tacky texture sown in to seal the distaste. Though those grill bar singes were pronounced, there was no grill flavor. Maybe it just couldn't fight through the muck to get any notice.
Idaho rainbow trout was markedly better. The hefty fillet was thick, firm and flaky, with nutty sweet flavors and a pleasant dusting of herbs and seasonings over the surface. Yet a side of braised red cabbage was overcooked, rendering it washed-out lavender.
Surprising for a near food tragedy, Chaucer's service is crisp and gracious with prompt responses and unobtrusive attentiveness--all without medieval duds. Curiously they don't offer hot moist towels at the sushi bar, perhaps an example of medieval hygiene.
The most medieval entrant on the menu was the wild game brochette, a skewered medley of the freshest game available that day. Ours shouldered quail, ostrich and venison. The quail was near perfect in moisture and flavor. Venison was fine. Only the ostrich was off, parched and tough.
Maple-glazed pork tenderloin vaguely slips into medieval culinary iconography--pig on a spit being a classic. But the maple sweetness was overwhelming, far too forward, making the meat almost cloying. Pork slices were frayed and mealy, fibrous and tough.
Though the menu boasts its beef is certified Angus, corn-fed and aged, our New York strip steak showed none of the traits such breeding might produce. The flavors were lackluster and faded. Textures were tough, chewy and mealy. It was like a pillow of ground-up cardboard formed into a steak. To its credit, the steak evoked yet another recollection of the Wife of Bath, waxing on about one of her more senior husbands: Therefore I tell this moral to everyone--profit for whoever may, for all is for sale: You cannot lure a hawk with an empty hand; for profit I would endure all his lust, and pretend an appetite myself; and yet I never had a taste for aged meat.
5080 Spectrum Drive, Addison, 972-233-3939. Open 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Monday-Friday; 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Saturday & Sunday. $$-$$$
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