Hibashi Teppan Grill and Sushi Bar
First impressions lead me to believe Steven Sohn is one of those larger-than-life, whoop-it-up Texas characters of legend.
The Hibashi Teppan Grill and Sushi Bar owner shelled out close to $3 million—a very Dallas-like sum—on his place, filling some of the wall space with appropriately ostentatious sculptures. He reserved a slice of restaurant for a "Vegas-style" bar, in keeping with the city's wannabe reputation. At an astonishing 12,000 square feet, the area both mocks recession-driven downsizing and mimics the state itself, with pockets of diners breaking up vast empty stretches. Finally, his kitchen seems eager to toss jalapeños into everything.
Well, not quite everything. But they show up on something called Hibashi Heaven, an appetizer pairing strips of salmon, tuna and yellowtail sashimi with sliced rounds of the vicious pepper and blazing dabs of hot sauce. While the raw fish must submit to appearing in a secondary role, more as soft, delicate texture behind a fiery trail, the combination promises some reward for those keen on exploring the bounds of Asian-Texas fusion. Not so the Santa Maria roll, an unlikely lump of onions, peppers and mozzarella wrapped in a tortilla, then deep fried—a Japanese chimichanga, if you will. Described in "wow" terms and, indeed, a unique presentation, it sputters on a mix of chopped vegetables vaguely reminiscent of La Choy chow mein and cheese so fickle it could pass for sour cream on the verge of extinction. Halibut ceviche places sashimi in a South American context for no apparent reason. But the kitchen rebounds with a curious "Maui roll" creation, again capped by jalapeño (as is common in Hawaiian cuisine, right?). Once again the fish finds itself shunted to the background as more forceful flavors emerge, this time warm and spicy, dominant without raging out of control, interesting but not at all demanding.
More of that Texas spirit shows up—on paper, at least—in the cowboy roll, although for some reason chicken, lettuce and sprouts fail to conjure images of the wild, wild West. At least they top the thing with bulgogi, a form of marinated meat popular in Korea.
Yes, Sohn has relatives living in South Korea, which explains some of the restaurant's pan-Asian menu twists. Before converting half of Farmers Branch into dining space, he traded in wholesale jewelry, and our server one evening declared Hibashi Teppan the owner's first foray into the food service industry.
The inexperience shows. Poor expediting on my first visit caused one of my dinner companions to sit with an entrée for five full minutes before the waitress returned with our three remaining orders. Roughly the same thing occurred on another occasion, as rolls, appetizers and entrées appeared at random, as if Jerry Lewis—or worse, Jim Carrey—was in charge of the kitchen.
Perhaps the restaurant needs to appoint a chef de cuisine, someone charged with coordinating its three separate service areas. Guests populating the dining room (wrapping in curvilinear fashion along floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the parking lot, around the teppan tables, into a back room and even spilling onto a chromed-out street-side patio) order from either the regular menu or the sushi bar, but no one bothers to hold the fast-chopping sushi guys in check while more sluggish line cooks set to work frying soft-shell crab or steaming the hell out of tilapia.
At least Hibashi's servers are well-versed in the menu. Early one Saturday, when our arrival minutes after opening seemed to catch the kitchen off guard again, the waiter steered me away from ceviche to the distinct and pleasing Hibashi Heaven starter. He then recommended an impressive sea bass presentation, two ample fillets of firm, clean, surprisingly corpulent fish stacked atop asparagus spears and a square of milky tofu. Seared into the flesh and pooled around the bowl, a striking broth offers notes of burnt candied citrus peel and pear cider.
Otherwise, it's safer to pick from the sashimi list or treat the kids to a little culinary circus act at one of the restaurant's teppan grills. Soft-shell crab season ended more than three months ago, so an appetizer portion felt sodden, the crust spongy and that gorgeous flavor lost to a character best described as "gushy." They skimp on crab meat in the spider roll, turning what should be an intriguing well of spindly, nutty-sweet crunchiness into something sad and tacky. And for some reason the kitchen props the appetizer version on a bed of chopped iceberg lettuce, choosing to set dull meat against listless greens. Just as curious is a stir-fried pork entrée piled over shredded cabbage, with rice on the side. Despite this dish's promise of spice, the sticky sauce falls into softer, sweeter territory, akin to the burnished molasses coating that stifles so many Southern-style baked hams. The volcano roll is dead and will probably never reignite. Tender eel in one entrée selection collapses under the weight of an equally intense, bittersweet glaze—although in this case the meat's intricate texture carries the dish, which it must, as the centerpiece mound in the entrée, composed of steamed izumidai, has dissolved into a rather unpleasant mush comparable in mouth feel to Wonder bread left overnight in the dog's water bowl.
The flavor of this fishy porridge, however, fixes a calming, chowder-like base against sharp slivers of shallot—a rather nice effect.
Izumidai, by the way, is the Japanese term for tilapia. I believe it translates literally as "snapper" and often winds up as a kind of snapper substitute in lean times—which may explain the "izumidai snapper" listed on the restaurant's sushi menu. It's a rare disingenuous mark in a restaurant that clearly hopes to please sashimi purists on one hand while playing fusion with Japanese traditions on the other and serving up a spirited show on the side.
Guests on the teppan side holler and hoot through dinner as flames erupt, knives flash and bits of shrimp tumble through the air in an inexorable arc toward the chef's dimpled hat. It's about the only place in this expansive restaurant where revelry threatens to rock the house. The prairie that is Hibashi Teppan's dining room can appear hushed and empty even when 40 or 50 diners take their seats. But in a year of apparent retrenchment, when cozy neighborhood joints gain market advantage and diners turn to choice red meat over more expensive prime, it takes guts—and perhaps a bit of swagger—to open such a titanic space.
They've done well to make the room feel intimate in places, vainglorious everywhere. Sohn's Asian roots and Lone Star brashness are obvious, both in the design and menu. But his kitchen needs to translate some of that Texas-Japanese-Korean-whatever babble into meaningful dishes.
13465 Inwood Road, Farmers Branch, 972-620-3474. Open 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-11 p.m. Friday, noon-11 p.m. Saturday, 4-10 p.m. Sunday. $$-$$$
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Dallas dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.