The sushi bar is serpentine. It also has an interesting endpoint set piece: a waterwheel. Yet the most fascinating element in this Japanese restaurant squatting in a former Uptown video rental outlet rests on the bar surface. It's there, between the grout lines framing the large black ceramic tiles: The butt end of the chopsticks is anchored on an in-the-shell peanut.
There must be some philosophical explanation for this, something very Zen. I check my sources: The Way of Zen; Buddha in the Palm of Your Hand; The Lazy Man's Guide to Enlightenment. No references to peanuts, not even in the sections that have to do with purposelessness.
But there is this: According to the China Circulate International Travel Service, peanuts are a good indicator of chopstick chops. "You may wonder if there is any yardstick by which to measure your proficiency of using chopsticks," says the service's Web site. "Well, try peanuts. If you can pick up a peanut, then you are fine; if you can pick up two, then congratulations!"
Mystery solved--except Sushi Sapporo doesn't put peanuts on its sushi bar for chopstick calisthenics. "It's to have something to rest the chopsticks on," says a Sapporo manager. "And if you're really hungry, it's also an appetizer."
Two birds killed, one stone thrown. Peanuts will tide you over until the edamame arrives. The green soybeans are broiled, the takeout menu says. Must be a typo. We didn't see any singes or shrinkage. The beans, slightly faded, sweated. The menu also says the beans come with sea salt, and in this there is no question. The bowl of green pods is turned over onto a plate. The wet salt that was caked on the bottom now becomes a conspicuous slope of fresh white flakes. Salt grains cling to fingertips and get transferred to the smooth beans as they're pinched from the pods. (Those on low-salt diets should deploy chopsticks for advanced calisthenics, as opening a soybean is more challenging than lifting up a peanut.)
Hmm. What's this? The deep-fried soft-shell crab is perched on a doily. Crab is cleaved into sections: four, maybe five, of them. It's hard to count after a pair of hot sake doses in plus-size bottles. "Special sauce," which generally means some kind of sweet soy derivative, is liberally lapped over the roughened crab surface. Hard to make sense out of the coating, though, except to say that it isn't bad. Neither are the crab segments: moist with that soft, satiny kind of crunch you might expect from a praying mantis after it tumbled into a corn dog fry vat. But the sauce soiled the white paper doily. There's something heretical about sullying a white doily, trimmed in lace, with soy sludge--a little like hugging a grease monkey in church clothes.
Miso soup is rich and cloudy. Tofu specks are small. Bits of seaweed and scallion swirl through the soy clouds like parade confetti, drifting, orbiting, tumbling as the hot fluid steams.
Instead of huge flat-screen televisions, the wall behind the sushi bar is home to three chalkboards with large letters denoting specials done up in high-definition sidewalk chalk. One is called "tuna party," a plate with assorted varieties and renditions of sea chicken.
Much is made of the special spicy octopus roll. Its sliced sections are arranged flat into a semicircle around the plate, opposite the spider roll. Fat circular beads of orange pepper sauce mark the perimeter. The circles are drawn without craft and look like Day-Glo super worms attempting the fetal position. Put them in the mouth, though, and the burn sears. The octopus, what there is of it, crunches in the mouth like a flaccid pickle. It's hard to get excited about something like this. This is a marquee item done up in chalk. It should be bold, even exotic, an "oh shit, Martha" culinary moment. Tentacles with pronounced suction cups pouting like Jolie lips should be reaching out of the compacted rice roll, offering themselves to be amputated in a foreplay of incisor crimps before the bite tears the seaweed wrap and dishevels the grains. More meticulousness can be found in grocery bakery sugar cookies.
The rest of the sushi is mixed. It's cool and fresh, but there is no artistry here. Flounder looks like it was cut with a serrated knife. The tuna is sinewy, anchoring elastic knots between the teeth so that it has to be stretched like gum to successfully consummate the bite and begin the chew. Hamachi is smooth and nutty--typical. Flying fish roe is fluffy, maybe a tiny bit fishy, but not enough to startle the phobias from dormancy. Squid is where some craft leaks out. The strip of flesh is tapered at each end with just the right amount of lift off the rice bullet. The meat has a milky translucence that is a seamless hue match with the rice--except the pleats over the surface, arranged like shark gills, expose a green glimmer. A Japanese basil leaf is sandwiched between the rice and the squid, lifting it with robust aromas--a squid breath mint.
Salmon teriyaki slumbered on a bed of dispirited stir-fry vegetables. No matter. The long slender piece of fish is stellar in texture, compelling in its rich nuance. The teriyaki treatment is sparse. Very wise. This permitted the delicate fish flavors to rise to the palate after the richness dissipated. Teriyaki extravagance can clog crucial nuance receptors in the tongue, forcing the more delicate flavors to pass unnoticed.
Girding the tonkatsu is a sprawl of teriyaki cabbage slaw: a bedding fraught with danger as it can detonate in the gullet before the meal is completed. Tonkatsu is Japanese pork cutlet. It's cut into thin strips and gracefully laid over cabbage. The breaded and fried pork is extremely dry and chewy, making it addictive in the same way beef jerky is before the flossing fits take hold. Ponzu sauce is drizzled over the top.
From the bar, turn your gaze to the left and peer out the window. Sushi Sapporo is edgy perhaps, if that word still has meaning. Glass bricks, faux stone wainscoting and a bar installed in the center of the dining room with a pair of wooden X's serving as the back bar drive the atmosphere. The bartender must have been bored. He poured something into a dish with rippled edges and set it on fire. The sound system was blaring Annie Lennox, but there must have been a digital system seizure because Annie started spitting libretto like a Tommy gun--eh! eh! eh! eh! The bartender's attention swayed from the flaming dish.
Sushi Sapporo is cavernous. A second floor is dedicated to private parties and karaoke. Yet sushi seems best when served in cozy enveloping spaces.
Una Ju is a bowl of rice topped with broiled eel and barbecued eel sauce. Eel sushi is a compelling respite in a sushi meal because it is warm or even hot: a stark contrast to the fleshy chill sliding across the tongue as the meal progresses. Here the eel is cold and mushy.
Time for peanut calisthenics.
3211 Oak Lawn Ave., Suite A, 214-528-2700. Open for lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; noon-3 p.m. Saturday & Sunday. Open for dinner 5:30-10:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5 p.m.-1 a.m. Friday & Saturday; 5:30-10 p.m. Sunday. $$-$$$
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