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.
There were only two flaws in this clean, strip-mall dining cube with hip diner floor tiles, a rough brick back wall, and deep plum accents. Our salads were replete with strips of browning head lettuce. Plus, we were never offered hot towels to clean our hands before eating at the sushi bar--a severe breach in sushi etiquette.
Peter Yamamoto, a Japan-trained sushi chef who had a stint at Kobe Steaks and operated Hibachi-Ya restaurant near Bachman Lake, owns Chaya. He also worked at Sushi at Stoneleigh, which, in my opinion, serves just about the best sushi in Dallas--at least until Chaya sprouted in a North Dallas mall.
"It looks like a soup kitchen," said one of my dining companions just after we sat down at the thickly varnished wood parquet-like table. And Thai Pepper does have that feel. The large, aging strip-mall windows in the front of the place are covered floor-to-ceiling with white lace curtains, which from the street make it look like paper coverings or a smearing of opacity to hide a renovation project or an inability to lease.
Inside, Asian pictures and souvenir-type wall hangings dot the white walls. A mauve shade of institutional carpeting covers the floor, and the doors to the kitchen and the restrooms are painted in deep sky blue. Beyond that calming blue lie soiled restrooms in need of some serious attention. One of my companions encountered a cockroach in the ladies' room on one visit. In the center of the floor is a buffet, which is the primary mode of feeding during lunch.
Thai Pepper teetered on the precipice of showing itself as a real culinary find, or an utter disaster. Uncannily, it showed itself somewhere in the middle, with a big toe firmly submerged in the chilling waters of catastrophe.
An order of spring rolls, fried crunchy on the outside with a core of cabbage, shreds of mushroom, rice, carrot and noodles, had a firm spice spark and was paired with a clean, viscous sweet-sour plum sauce. But the things were unbearably greasy.
Tom yum seafood soup, served in a bundt-like aluminum pan with a blue Sterno flame roaring out of the center like the burn from a jet fighter, was better. A thinly flavored broth stiffened with spice and tang held mushrooms, calamari, shrimp, green shell mussels, bone-in floured and fried catfish, tomato, lemon grass, and kaffir leaves. The catfish was tasty, the calamari was resilient yet limber, and the mussels were tender and sweetly flavorful.
Thai pepper basil, a specialty, had the same seafood roster as the soup, plus snow peas, carrot, baby corn, bell pepper, and Thai basil. The dish had a spicy, rich sauce, but here the fish was a little overcooked.
Pad Thai, a staple Thai noodle dish served in roadside stalls, was thoroughly undistinguished, with a tangle of soggy noodles holding scallions, a bundle of crunchy raw bean sprouts, egg, and slightly dry chicken chunks in a boring peanut sauce. So many restaurants muddle this dish by smothering the mix in an inarticulate sauce rendered from peanut butter, fish sauce, and a dab of chili-garlic paste instead of using freshly crushed peanuts, chopped garlic, and crushed red chilies. This is just another example of the former.
But if Thai Pepper's menu items held some culinary dignity, the lunch buffet sank into a pool of mush and slop. This shouldn't be surprising. Hot tables are often merciless to all but the most heavy-duty foods, and are especially deleterious to foods with sharply drawn flavors and textures, a characteristic of Thai cuisine.
Chicken-coconut milk soup had a clean, smooth broth holding chunks of overcooked chicken and slices of mushy onion along with mushrooms and kaffir leaves.
Poi sean, thin rice noodles with tomato, baby corn, chicken, and egg, was little more than wads of gooey, over-oiled noodles. Seafood curry was mushy and loaded with fishy tasting calamari along with mussels, shrimp, fish, eggplant, red bell pepper, and bamboo shoots in curried coconut milk. Fish basil, a dish with green beans, red bell pepper, and jalapenos, was loaded with dry, chewy chunks of fish. The only buffet item that had any merit was the steamed vegetables: crisp cabbage with serrated cut carrot, zucchini, and broccoli in a brown sauce. A dessert of sweetened coconut milk with chunks of sweet potato finished things off with cloying pastiness.
Open just four months, Thai Pepper is operated by Patidta Pengnum, a veteran of several area Thai restaurants including Bangkok Inn. While spots on her menu hold promise, far too much of it collapses into mediocrity.
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Chaya Sushi and Grill. 101 Preston Royal Village Shopping Center, Preston and Royal; (214) 361-0220. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday; open for dinner 5 p.m.-10:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 5 p.m-9:30 p.m. Sunday.
Thai Pepper Restaurant. 1208 E. Beltline Road, Suite 104, Carrollton; (972) 242-4532. Open for lunch 11:00 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, dinner 5 p.m.-9 p.m. Open noon-10 p.m. Saturday, 12 p.m.-9 p.m. Sunday
Chaya Sushi and Grill:
Chicken & shrimp $9.50
Sirloin steak $8.25
Sushi assortment $9.50
Chaya roll $9.50
California roll $4.75
Uni (2 pieces) $6.00
Octopus (2 pieces) $3.75
Thai Pepper Restaurant:
Spring rolls $2.25
Lunch buffet $4.95
Tom yum seafood soup $7.95
Pad Thai $5.95