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Long and Winding Roe

Hanasho does sushi right. Not great, but right.
Tom Jenkins

Sushi is a commodity, one with a vigor that shows no signs of dissipating. It has conquered strip malls, fast food and grocery stores. Sushi has come a long way since the days when eating raw fish and crunching the glass bead roe of smelt and flying fish seemed the stuff of urban legend lifted from Japanese snuff films.

Now in Irving you see guys wearing tattered shorts, Reeboks and T-shirts emblazoned with "I snatch kisses. Vice versa too." bellying up to the bar to order raw tuna with a side of hot wings.

Or was it French fries?

At Hanasho they have fried squid legs. They're like French fries, insisted our server, thinking she needed to entice the kid bunched up at the bar with something that's seen some heat before serving. But they don't look a thing like French fries. Yes, they have golden brown fringe crusting the creamy flesh and the tiny suction cups, brittle with crispy promise. And like most good French fries, they're relatively greaseless. Still, the display is arresting. Lined up tightly in near-perfect symmetry, the limbs are thick at one end and tapered at the other, with the tips curving upward like hooks. They look like headless seahorses. In the mouth, they're surprisingly sweet, like shrimp, yet chewier as only a squid can be. We gobbled them like fries yet were offered no ketchup--one of life's little miracles.

Hanasho must love amputating suckered arms, because the restaurant puts octopus limbs in a salad, severed and chopped into bite-sized segments with suction cups as pert as poppy blossoms. They chew like you'd expect: not rubbery, but with a masculine firmness. Crowded in with the octopus bits are strips of wakame seaweed and thin cucumber slices. The skin on the slices is faded into that exhausted shade of army fatigue/canned pea green. Was this cucumber sliced and left to wade in the rice vinegar dressing pool for too long? A second order of the very same salad brought brighter cucumber slices. The dressing was sweeter, too--perhaps sugar has something to do with how vividly a cucumber sheath vibrates.

Hanasho has a handsome sushi bar surfaced in black granite bracketed in wood. Chefs wear black T-shirts and black sweatbands with the ends of the ties dangling like tassels at the base of the neck, making them look like sinister swashbuckling Shriners. They work meticulously. One shaves a thick stub of daikon radish into parchment with a yasai bocho, a knife with a stout cleaver-like blade for chopping vegetables. Another bundles seaweed into a rice roll and carves off slices.

Sushi here is competent, if largely unimpressive. It's cool and tender, smooth and clean. A complementary taste of seared tuna in a small ponzu splash is deliciously rich.

But tako (octopus) is slightly fishy; the Spanish mackerel, a little sinewy. Uni (sea urchin roe), was bland on the first visit, but fluffy and rich on the second. Consistency wavers. Toro (fatty tuna belly) is rich if slightly warm and a little slimy. The fat is promiscuous, coating the inner recesses of the mouth like a blast of soot.

Stay with this bar long enough though, and the other hand turns. Tuna is red and smooth. You revel in sadistic pleasure as your incisors and tongue fray the tuna in the roof of your mouth, rending it like fine silk. The deliciously fresh flounder is garnished with bits of bright green scallion and dots of red pepper-stained daikon mush.

But Hanasho isn't all carved-up and raw. Fires flare and griddles sear, scorching and caramelizing various beasts both whole and in pieces. Beef tataki is composed of slices of flash-seared beef, blushing like blood oranges and sewn with aimless winding tangles of fat filament. The slices are tightly layered on a cluttered bed of white onion shards in a ponzu pool. Striped across the surface in perfect symmetry--as if to ridicule the unruly wavering of the fat threads--is a ribbon of chopped scallions, followed by a bead of daikon radish mush stained with red pepper sauce, followed by a milky strand of pulverized ginger. The meat is competent but not rich and certainly not silken, driving an unrequited beef lust. Tough patches riddle the slices, making you work for the flavor, what little there is of it.

It's better to work over the grilled mackerel, because there's so little labor to do. All that's added is salt and heat. The sea is left to stand on its own. Is it up to it? Grill bars gouge deep bronze trenches into the silvery skin. It almost taunts you with the marine potency you know lurks within. The steam wafts your nostrils with that rich funk. The meat is a twisted spiral of dull gray and dull taupe. The flesh is a little spongy, but the flavors are assertively ripe, with a sliver of grill singe for temperance.

Grill bars also unleash a pair of puffy smelt. Strange how they get this way--smelt tend to flatten and shrivel under the withering fervor of grilling. The skin isn't scorched by the grill. On the plate the smelt rest alone; no pinches of scallion, no sprinkles of roe, no pulverized daikon dabs. The smelt stare with milky eyes, unsettling the appetite for a moment. They crunch like vegetables--bones maybe, or errant innards. Flavor nearly entices but is ultimately uninteresting.

Décor isn't uninteresting. It's contemporary, planked with blond woods and finished in sharp angles. But this chill is cleverly warmed with curvy suspended ceiling modules drenched in butterscotch. Walls are similarly bathed. Embedded in the center of the ceiling is a decorative contrivance: a recessed square flushed with light that shifts color every couple of seconds--a rainbow sherbet skylight.

Menu flavors are nearly as broad. Chilled spinach sneaks in. The wilted leaves are chilled with bonito (dried, aged and shredded fish from the tuna family) pixie dust sprinkled over them. The combination is exhilarating.

But the soft shell crab left oil sheen on the fingertips: the bane of deep frying. "Who cares if it's greasy," says the kid at our table, ripping a hunk from the legless body. "It just needs to taste good." And it does. The coating isn't chalky or gritty. The body and flesh aren't spongy or soggy. The flavors are simple and clean, with the breath of sweetness up front that one generally expects from shellfish.

One of the oddest delicacies found in Japanese restaurants is the cheek carved from a fish face. Salmon and yellowtail are the most common victims. Hamachi kama is the piece cut from behind a yellowtail head, with fins and blades of cartilage impounded in the meat. The area is ripe with oils and fats--and strong flavors. When fresh, the flavors are luxurious and fleeting, leaving a gentle imprint on the tongue before fading. When the head ring is on the south side of freshness, the flavors are tough and persevering, coating the tongue with tenacious viscosity. This collar seems aged. Meat is a little fatty, stringy, like tough strands culled from crab legs when they're old or have been frozen or both. Fins were crispy though.

Hanasho is straight ahead, serviceable sushi. Nothing stands out; nothing rivets the heart in fear; nothing elicits reactionary winces, which shows you how far we've come in the last few years. Or is it decades? 2938 N. Belt Line Road, Irving, 972-258-0250. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday. Open for dinner 5:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Friday & Saturday. $$$

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Hanasho Japanese Restaurant

2938 N. Belt Line Road
Irving, TX 75062-5247

972-258-0250

www.hanasho.com


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