Ten years ago Mediterraneo slipped into the ground level of a bank building in the farthest northern reaches of Dallas. My first visit was in 1996. It was for the birds. I gnawed on a dry-cured duck breast and avocado salad with mixed greens, shaved parmesan and Provençal vinaigrette. That was followed by oven-roasted chicken marinated in sun-dried tomato olive oil with cream polenta and grilled portobello mushrooms on a bed of watercress pocked with sweet peppers and drizzled with mustard shallot vinaigrette. Brevity wasn't in vogue back then. The food was good.
Mediterraneo was elegant with a warm amber glow and sweeping archways splintering the room into cozy modules with nooks in the walls for vases and wine bottles and such. It was the epitome of Mediterranean dining; the sort where you're convinced glancing out a window would bring visions of an azure sea lapping white sand if only that damn black Suburban would roll out of the way.
Mediterraneo gasped its last sea breath in 2002. But the look remains--if you don't count the lighted purple Sapporo beer sign, the disheveled ferns and the brass push plates on the doors mottled and tarnished from a decade of sweaty palms. The menu now has entries like this: "Negimayaki; beef and scallion rolls laquered [sic] in teriyaki sauce."
There's no sign of vinaigrettes or sun-dried tomatoes. Those notches in the wall are now filled with samurai warriors. This is because the restaurant has turned Japanese: Samurai Japanese Cuisine & Sushi Bar, to be specific. Samurai is owned by Ju Kwak. In Boston he had Mr. Sushi and Hana Sushi. In Seoul he had Tuna Sushi. In Cambridge he had Narita on Harvard Square. In East Lyme, Connecticut, he had Ichban East Lyme. In Dallas, he has Samurai in a space that once dripped with dazzling culinary precision and élan.
Samurai has neither. The nitty-gritty is a no-show; the natty vaporized in a sea breeze. At the sushi bar, no hot hand towels are delivered. This is a Japanese restaurant. The Japanese have remote controls for their toilets that operate spurting butt-washers backed up by deodorizing butt blow dryers designed to do away with the dangers of toilet paper.
But there are no hand towels at Samurai. Sitting there at the sushi bar, waiting for the maguro, hamachi, tako, sake and flounder (uni, toro and bluefin tuna were no-shows), I hear a gentle, soothing trickle. No clue as to the source. Then I squint, and there, behind the stacked boxes of food-service plastic wrap and a few rice cookers, an arc of spurting water comes into view. I get up from my seat and move to the rear of the sushi bar, and there is a fountain--three dancing dolphins' worth. They spit streams into the air that splatter into a pool down below, which is surrounded by those disheveled ferns, the leaves curling and browning.
Once it arrives, the sushi isn't as bad as the ferns, though there is an attention deficit when it comes to details. Miso soup has broth as thin as warm water from a worn tea bag and tofu cubes the size of Jujubes. Though the maguro (tuna) is smooth and loose without sinewy muscle threads that get stuck between your teeth like floss, it is a little too loose, never achieving rich silken density. Hamachi is fishy, betraying the freshness implied by the restaurant's "seafood flown in from Boston" claim. The flounder is stringy. I've never had stringy flounder.
But sushi and sashimi aren't the only ways raw fish makes appearances here. There's the Samurai salad, which arrives in a long bumpy green dish that looks like a massive eggplant that's been halved horizontally and hollowed out. Despite receiving second billing in the menu description, seaweed has a minimal presence; just a pinch, speckled with sesame seeds and deposited in front of the main salad installment, which is a significant bed of terrestrial greens with seafood over it: shrimp, tuna, hamachi and long lipstick-red strands of surimi. Surimi?
Surimi is the headcheese of seafood--the fish sausage that no one wants to know the makings of. In Japanese, surimi means "minced fish," and it starts with leached cod that is blended with sugar, wheat starch and soy proteins before it is formed into blocks and frozen--the foundation for a future Ben & Jerry's Vanilla Phish perhaps. Surimi is the source of fish jelly and imitation crabstick, strands of white meat dyed red to make it look like a shapely crab leg. But instead of the clean brininess that dominates real crab, surimi is mostly sweet. Surimi is the poor man's crab, which is odd because Samurai's prices aren't for poor men.
Then again, Samurai doesn't offer steamed towels. So it's no surprise surimi made another appearance in the yosenabe, a 25-buck seafood dish that sports a stewish nature. It's delivered on a vented white ceramic block covered in Japanese lettering. In the center of the block is a Sterno dish, sending its quivering blue flames through a metal screen. Perched atop the screen is a bowl holding a foil insert shaped into a star, several sharp points fanning out. This insert is filled with low-intensity fish broth bathing a whole prawn (tough with exhausted flavors), surimi, whitefish, scallions, mussels dyed a St. Patrick's Day-draft shade of green and a big wedge of cabbage with leaves drooping and leached of all color, like some sort of angel membrane. The presentation was impressive, or at least eclectic, but the flavor and composition didn't match the daring of the delivery system.
This dish heightened a certain Samurai dissonance. The distinctive presentation was delivered to a table anchored on laminated placemats with one of those cereal box-like sushi diagrams that are usually fashioned into little wall posters off to the side of many lesser sushi bars.
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So it's hard to put a finger on Samurai's forte. It isn't the yaki-udon, a Japanese noodle stir-fry with thick sticky noodles, cabbage shreds, carrot, scallion and strips of dry, weathered chicken topped with a mesh of seaweed and bonito flakes.
I expected a peak experience with the hamachi-kama, or yellowtail collar, since this turned out to be a culinary tantalizer at Tei Tei Robata Bar on a visit that followed by a few years my first trip to Mediterraneo. The collar is a vertical cross section of fish body from just behind the head. It is an open-ended ring of flesh that's fiercely grilled, to the point the fins are singed into a brittle crunch, like pork rinds without the puffiness. The meat is firm but a little fishy.
Which Samurai is: fishy, just a little. It has too much surimi. Loud beer signs hang among chic Greek beach décor. It promises live jazz nightly, but we never heard any, though in all fairness, we dined at 8 p.m. Maybe the jazz comes later. After the hot towels.
18111 Preston Road, No. 120, 972-818-0122. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday, open for dinner 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 5 p.m.-midnight Friday & Saturday. $$$