Think of Little Katana as the Dallas version of a city hot-dog cart. You've seen them in some urban locales: steam tables on wheels with potato chip sacks clipped to a riser; beverage bottles displayed in a row just above the bin where franks and sausages swelter in caged clouds of steam; a hot bin for buns. Polish sausage with kraut, chopped onions, spurts of mustard and ketchup, a deli pickle nuzzled next to the tube if it will fit. Wrap it up in white paper, watch the bun steam, pop open the pink lemonade, present currency soiled with mustard fingerprints (note: U.S. currency is composed of washable cotton and linen rag that responds well to pre-soaking).
Little Katana Sushi Bar is in the Galleria. It is wedged under an outer wing of Macy's. There are five or so stools in front of the sushi bar that spill into the mall thoroughfare. This feels just like a real city street, one without the parking tickets. People strolling down the shop boulevards stop and glare at you as you dip maguro into your little soy dish and plop it into your mouth. The sushi chef has spiky hair. Techno pop blasts from tiny speakers, standing your ear hairs like the strands in the chef's 'do. Across the thoroughfare, against the fence overlooking the ice rink a few floors below, is another stretch of counter space with even more stools, sort of the mall version of a city park bench. Except these shiny stools rise and descend when you reach under the seat and pull a lever. Horrible things can happen if you reach under a park bench and attempt to pull something.
Just like a real city street, the mall is under construction. The pathways are ripped up. Mall innards are exposed. Barricades and detours channel traffic. Your shoe snags on strips of tape designed to smooth jarring construction bumps. Instead, you stumble and your teeth rattle, just as you do over real road construction zones.
This is not to say that sushi is like hot dogs. Hot dogs and sausages are composed of things that would frighten a union plumber. Sushi is just raw fish, sometimes with cream cheese. We sit at the counter and browse the chalkboard of Little Katana specials. There's a dragon roll for $10, a sea urchin bowl for $20 and a katana for $800. Katana, is this an Italian shoe?
No, the katana is a curved, single-edged Japanese long sword, traditionally used by samurai and untraditionally used by Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. The $800 katana gleams in a glass display case, resting on a pair of wooden perches, its sheath slumbering on the next shelf below.
There are also a few vicious-looking knives the chef says are used for gutting fish. Besides the weaponry, this is what I liked best about Little Katana: When I ordered a bowl of miso soup, the sushi chef picked up a walkie-talkie and said "one miso." A few minutes later, a gentleman in an apron and baseball cap emerged from behind a curtain and handed the chef the steaming bowl. What could be better than that? Not the soup.
It floats a healthy flotilla of seaweed, but the broth is thin, almost void of that lusty fermented richness, the kind that draws your eyes deep into billowing broth clouds that rise with every spoon disturbance. The tofu is tough and spongy; dried and reconstituted would be my guess.
Salads are far better. The squid salad is a bowl of chewy appendages mingled with body slices littered with dried seaweed strips. A few bamboo shoots and ginger pieces weave through the crowd. It's cool, vibrant and hearty in that Japanese way of meticulousness--the kind that sneers at pure heft (it's impossible to imagine the Japanese inventing the Manwich). Subtle layers of briskness weave through in tandem with narrow strands of sweet, most likely from splashes of rice vinegar. A smoky layer peeks through, too, compounding the complexity. The meat is firm and pliable, yet tender. Seaweed salad is crisp and tasty. But let's be honest: It's pretty hard to muck up seaweed salad, unless it's served in freezer slush--more common than you might believe.
Two or so seats were out of commission at the sushi bar on our first visit. This was because a manager was renovating the ice bin behind the bar. He was working with slices of large PVC pipe, fitting them into the depths of the bin, his aim a mystery.
But heck, the first wave of sushi hit, so thoughts veered from plumbing to seaweed. Maguro (tuna) is a lazy red, not the bright red that teases you with presumptive richness. Texturally, it's mushy. When Little Katana tuna is swaddled in roll garb, things reach even further south. In this guise, the fish is not only mushy, it festers sour notes as well. Notes like these fall hard on the tongue.
Taco (octopus) is good and chewy. But hamachi (yellowtail) is fishy and stringy.
We refocused our attention on the guy with the PVC pipe. He begins to assemble thick stalks of bamboo into bundles, binding them together with duct tape. The mystery deepens.
The dragon roll comes. It's an impressive span: long, thick and, as a little time spent with it reveals, gooey--not necessarily a detraction. The interior is a pale pink paste, a substance created by mixing crab meat (surimi would be the guess) with cream cheese. Over that is layered rice, avocado and eel. The roll is brushed with a thick, sweetish sauce. The roll is tasty, rich and, as you would expect from a fish log with an avocado and cream-cheese injection, moist.
Mystery evaporates on our second visit. Big bamboo stalks rise from the ice bin, partially hidden by a bamboo mesh spread along its length like a little fence. In front of that is a spread of black, smooth river stones. Over the stones rest examples of the Little Katana beverage list: non-alcoholic beers, teas, waters, Japanese soda, etc. Funny thing is, the same team of liquids is positioned on a shelf off to the side of the sushi bar, creating a pronounced redundancy in a space no bigger than a phone booth. As you no doubt have guessed, Little Katana has yet to secure a liquor license, which opens the door to endless culinary discovery. For example, I discovered V-8 doesn't go very well with raw fish. You keep thinking of a Bloody Mary garnished with a guppy.
Yet that thought doesn't detract from the visually striking flounder. It's beautiful: white and silvery, sharply tapered at the end where it drops off beyond the edge of the rice billet. The meat is cool. A burn coils through the nose, ignited by the smear of green wasabi tucked under the silvery flesh. Yet the meat is tough, with conspicuous threads of sinew cabled through it. More V-8.
The fish bowls arrive with the same basic stagecraft but with the centerpieces swapped out. The woman next to me has a yellowtail bowl. It has the same sharply cleaved strips of egg custard rising from the edge, the same long needles of pickled carrot on the opposite edge, the same dark dried seaweed flurried over the fish, the same sharp maple-like leaf garnish rising out of the center. My centerpiece is uni: a spread of near-mustard yellow sea urchin roe rumpled over the sticky rice base, which plunges deep into the bowl. The uni is creamy and lush. It slowly melts into the rice grains, transforming the dish into a butterscotch dessert that few children would go near. The bowl is delicious, one of the few things that make a trip to this cart worth the struggle through mall thoroughfares. Yet the Little Katana-Macy's symbiosis may someday result in other worthies. Salmon skin stilettos, for instance. 13350 Dallas Parkway, 972-991-1122. Open daily 10 a.m.-9 p.m. $$
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4527 Travis St.
Dallas, TX 75205