"Strip mall" used to mean a massive parking lot, a grocery store, a nail place (with some obvious name like "Nails Here"), a wacky wing place and a Blockbuster Video. Then there might be some labor-of-love restaurant that went under in three months, unless it was a buffet, and then somehow it might make it three years.
Now, strip malls are apparently where it's at. "It" being popular places like Starbucks, massage and facial spas, high-end boutiques and incredibly worthy restaurants such as Plano's Sushi Sakana. Petite and tastefully decorated in a rich wood and wall-length mirrors, Sushi Sakana far exceeds outdated strip-mall expectations. Finding Sakana ("fish" in Japanese) nestled between a Starbucks and a nail salon (hey, we were right about that one) is like finding a diamond within a cubic zirconium grab bag you picked up on QVC.
Our first visit, on a weeknight, found us sitting near the front of the restaurant but with a nice view of the sushi chefs already hard at work for Sakana's six to eight tables. They waved and cooed at one family's happy toddler in between slicing fish and plating some of the most elegant and festive dishes I've laid eyes on.
Iced green tea $2.50
Chicken teriyaki $12.95
Oishi fries $14.95
Yellow tail sushi $5.25
Scallop sushi $4.95
Caribbean roll $15.95
Wasabi roll $10.95
New spicy crunch roll $11.95
Ice cream sushi roll special $8.95
I started with simple nigiri sushi—hamachi, or yellow tail, and white tuna—while we waited for our cooked appetizer and more complex sushi to arrive. There are the little touches that make Sushi Sakana a destination even with a 30-minute drive to Plano factored in. Our first notice of this came with the wasabi and pickled ginger platelets. The ginger was sliced as usual, but the wasabi had been pushed onto the plate through a pastry bag and icing tip, creating a sweet change from the normal glob.
After destroying the design because, honestly, the little green tower practically begged for it, I gingerly latched onto a piece of the yellow tail. The cut was generous. The texture was exceptional and wonderfully tender. Almost buttery in consistency, the sushi was as close to perfect as one could find inland.
According to our cheery server, Sakana receives its fish shipment not on the usual Tuesday-and-Friday schedule often found round these parts, but every other day. And that's only if they can't get it every day. It's vital to the sushi, and freshness is clearly a priority to the sushi chefs. As they prepare dishes, we watch them painstakingly re-wrapping every hunk of fish between orders. There's no setting it aside for when there's a break, or even throwing it in a hotel pan and shoving it into the fridge uncovered as I've seen elsewhere. Once the flesh is no longer in use, it is covered or wrapped and put away. (Unfortunately, you can't say the same for the teens idling outside at Starbucks.) It's another "little thing," but it's a big one—reinforcing your faith in fresh product.
The white tuna also fared exceptionally well with slightly more fight to the bite but with a clean, almost nutty and mild taste perfectly appropriate for the beginning of a meal. Later on, I tried a spicy scallop offering, always remembering to build on the flavors when it comes to sushi. And later is a good call for the scallop here: The squares of the bivalve were perfectly taut and married well with the smelt egg mixed in, but the spicy mayo is far too rich to begin a meal with.
Then came the rolls. Some might say the flashy maki roll isn't respectful of the true spirit of sushi, with flavors often added that overpower the natural flavor of the fish, but at Sakana, the chefs have achieved a great level of adventure in their recipes while showcasing the fish, not covering it up.
The Caribbean roll, for example, combines tuna, salmon and yellow tail with crab (a minced version) and mango slices in a rice paper wrap. Sushi Sakana is presentation heaven when it comes to their maki. The brightly colored roll slices were reminiscent of confetti, and they were seated in a shallow swash of chili and ponzu sauces. The result was as vibrant in flavor as in color. The mango provided the perfect counterbalance to the three fishes, which when combined became a lush, tender core for the fruit to spoon against. The sauces joined forces to delight the tongue with a fusion of the piquant and sweet.
On both our visits, the wasabi roll was the hands-down winner, a showstopper of a dish. The roll, while non-traditional in yet another alternative wrapping of soybean paper, uses the tried-and-true tuna-salmon-crab combo, adding cucumber for its hint of crunch and cool. Splayed on a white plate, the rolls have a greenish hue because of the generous (but not overwhelming) presence of wasabi. The roll is amped up subtly and successfully by a wasabi-honey drizzle that dances about the plate. On the tongue, the roll is pert, invigorating and surprisingly rich. But again the condiments and additives do not deter from the power of the exceedingly fresh fish inside them. The wasabi is not a sinus-clearing disaster, but instead a tantalizing foreplay to the awesome fish within the ricey confines.
The new spicy crunch roll played up to its name—a more slender, near foot-long roll containing tempura-fried shrimp, avocado, cucumber and spicy tuna. The roll was covered in what our server referred to as "crunchies," a combination of tempura crumbs and panko breadcrumbs. Our server suggested a change from chili sauce droplets to spicy mayo and the suggestion proved a wonderful one that, once again, aided the flavor instead of covering it up. The roll swerved across the plate with drizzles, dots and a levee of "crunchies," and the plating was so exquisite it both begged for tasty destruction and made us feel guilty for ruining the presentation.
Oishi fries (a plate of breaded and deep-fried soft shell crab and nori-wrapped unagi eel) are a great suggestion for those intimidated by raw fish but still in search of something Japanese-ish. The bits of both crab and eel were not greasy at all. The addition of the nori, thin sheets of dried seaweed, to the eel made for a succinct two-bite nugget light in its breading but rich in succulent meat.
Continuing with the sparse selection of cooked dishes, the chicken teriyaki was an overall success. The mildly sweet teriyaki sauce was not applied with heavy hand, and the chicken was tender and juicy. The accompanying sautéed veggies were crunchy and well-seasoned, the slight sear providing a wonderful brown edge here and there. The gyoza (dumplings) were a lovely golden brown, deep-fried instead of pan-seared. While they had little to no greasiness, the primary flavor came from the dipping sauce.
Even the spider roll proved more flavorful than the Tokyo roll, however, which was simply an exercise in spice. The O-yama roll was a basic California roll with a clump of jalapeños hiding out in the corner and slices of tuna and shrimp lounging on the top. Both are easy to bypass in favor of another roll or some sashimi...often beautifully applied to a hill of snowy ice.
Along with our sushi, we tried beer as well as a lovely cold sake (during a weekend visit a large table of revelers joined the friendly chefs and spunky owner for a round of rowdy sake bombs—apparently a restaurant favorite) but found the iced green tea to be the most satisfying companion.
Our final meal at Sakana ended with a daily dessert special of a tempura roll of vanilla ice cream drizzled with chocolate sauce. Simple enough, but extremely airy and flavorful at the same time. The tempura was cloud light, with a blond, crunchy exterior that slowly surrendered to the melting of the ice cream.
It's the surprising nature of Sushi Sakana that really makes it a wonderful little Japanese gem in an annoying American strip mall. It's the striking plating; owner Sue Cook's sincere greeting to each table; the sushi chefs' diligence; the fun, creative items mixed with traditional—all paying tribute to that innovative country in the East. It's the small steps that draw Texans into the wonderful world of succulent, fresh raw fish. It's a labor-of-love restaurant opened a year and a half ago that will hopefully be around much longer than three, strip mall be damned.
3000 Custer Road, Suite 110, Plano, 972-398-1790. Open 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 4 p.m.-10 p.m. Saturdays and 1 p.m.-8:30 p.m. Sundays. $$$
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