Puddy Good

At Oishii, the birds are delicious, but the sushi is warm and fuzzy.
Peter Calvin

On the second visit we ended up next to the same car we slipped alongside on the first trip: a red Plymouth Sundance with Tweety Bird slip covers over the front buckets. This was weird: two Warner Bros. canaries leering out at me from a cheap MOPAR on two separate occasions. This could be an omen, or even creepier, some kind of repeating metaphor to be unraveled from the voluminous Oishii menu.

Oishii Sushi & Pan-Asian Cuisine took shape in a slot in Wycliff Point Shopping Center, with Dallas Bar & Billiards and Sal's Pizza Restaurant snuggled next to it. It occupies a space that was once Hau Giang, a Vietnamese restaurant, giving credence to the theory that Asian restaurants are multiplying in Dallas like a pair of guppies mainlining fertility drugs. By last count, there were more restaurants of the pan-Asian/sushi ilk than there are Taco Bells, Burger Kings, McDonald's and Korean cars combined, and that's not even counting Tom Thumb's sushi case. How long will it be before some enterprising Dallas entrepreneur introduces subscription sushi?

Of course, the sushi at Oishii is much better than the grocer kind (hint: The word means delicious in Japanese). But it may not be as cold--a distressing effect. Still, it's good, except the tuna was a little stringy. The tepid sea bass was clean and delicious, as was the hamachi, which was almost creamy in texture. Balminess didn't work well with the mackerel, though, a strong fish that warmth animates to distracting levels. It was spongy, with a weird sort of oily juiciness that made it seem almost furry.

The cool thing about Oishii, though, is the décor, a kind of haunted rec-room chic. It's all there: the cheesy paneling, the dim sconces, the red leatherette and chrome chairs butted up against tables loosely veneered in brown vinyl, and lucky bamboos sprouting out of bud vases deployed from Reagan-era florist closeouts. The center of the restaurant is carved by a divider constructed out of pipe fittings (so are a couple of the bud vases, I think) and red planks. Like the confessing Pete Rose and Shrek, this décor is so ugly, it's cute. It may even be hip.

The liquid cool from the sound system sure is. It leaks out and bathes you into a kind of dreamy lilt of funk: Beck, Radiohead, Bob Dylan, Lucinda Williams, even Simon & Garfunkel funk plus other great tunes that I loved but couldn't name, and neither could our server because the sound was packaged by friends who burned and downloaded sounds people actually listen to instead of troll to.

Soup is liquid cool, too, so much so it actually inspires contemplation. Not so much the hot and sour soup, which was neither and was studded with peas and carrot cubes seemingly ejected from a can, but the pho. Pho is ceremonial, aromatic, and when it's good, all minimalist guts and glory; the Dalai Lama of soups. While it doesn't have the panache of vichyssoise or the cerebral appeal of chunky minestrone, it is loaded with transcendent harmony. Slurping pho is like having your soul breast-fed. Pho is loaded with feathery hints of lushly sweet aromas and Texas brawn. Tangled there among slick and supple rice noodles are square scraps of "rear steak" and "well-done steak" as thin as pounded sheet metal, plus beef tendon as tender as noodle. From a separate plate heaped high with green and white flora, you add cilantro clippings, dark green basil leaves, bean sprouts, jalapeños and squirts from lime wedges. Pho is sense-surround soup: You breathe in billowing gusts of perfumed steam while spray stings your wrists from the splashes of noodles, sprouts and beef slipping off the spoon as you try to cram its addictive warmth into your mouth.

Oishii is like this sushi-pho yin yang throughout, slipping in and out of the ordinary and the extraordinary. Pot stickers were ordinary. Soft-shell crab in sea salt was generous and soggy: huge battered sections that wheezed like sodden kitchen sponges under pressure; it's hard to determine if this is ordinary or extraordinary.

There was little taste of lemongrass in the lemongrass chicken, but it was still loaded with worth: moist sections of chicken framed in bamboo shoots, carrot, peppers and long strips of scallion, layers curled inward from the heat and resembling needle-like green beans.

Soybean pods (edamame) were bright green and scrubbed of blemishes. But on our first visit we had to salt our own beans from the table shaker. On the second visit, the beans had sea salt crystals dotting them.

Oishii is a restaurant from the mind of Thanh Nguyen, a native of Bien Hoa in southern Vietnam and a former sushi chef at the recently refabricated Steel Restaurant. The menu is a voluminous burgeoning of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and Thai (Nguyen says he even sometimes features Singapore noodles). It grabs huge chunks of the Asian continent and installs them in tracts on the menu under cryptic titles such as "beef," "pork," "seafood," "Vietnamese noodle soup/pho" and my favorite, "hot pots, fire pots & stews," which sounds like a film loaded with money shots. From this heading we pecked at the seafood hot pot loosely packed with pointed spirals of calamari, tiny coiled undistinguished shrimp, a couple of tasty scallops and crabmeat we had trouble locating. This was good.

Under beef we plumbed the shaken beef, which, in this era of stumbling "downer" cows, embraces terrifying implications. This was not so good. Not because the medley--onions, broccoli and chilies in a potent garlic sauce--wasn't well-assembled, but because the meticulously carved cubes of beef were dry and tasted old, or maybe frozen.

Outside of pho and Tweety Bird, the most compelling Oishii experience is the Peking duck, an elaborate Chinese dish with a preparation process that begins by pumping air between the duck's skin and flesh and continues with a ritual that calls for the bird to be coated with honey and hung from a hook and dried until the skin is hard. Then it's roasted. At Oishii, it arrives as dark tawny slices, pieces of supple but crispy skin drifting from the sections of juicy, rich meat. The slices are carefully placed on a bed of lettuce and crispy rice noodles along with scallions and are served with Peking doilies, a.k.a. Mandarin pancakes composed of flour, water and sesame oil. The idea is to load the pancakes with lettuce, noodles and duck, slather it with sweet soybean sauce and then roll it up and take a bite in fajita fashion. But the duck tastes just as good without all of that fiddling.

Under "appetizers" comes shrimp in tofu wrap: puffed little pillows with the corners perfectly tapered into points. These fried appetizers have pocks over their creamy tofu sheen. They're searingly hot, too. Inside, the shrimp is ground into a meal with flecks of scallion. But as a composite, the wraps were a little rubbery.

Yet Oishii is still a fascinating culinary adventure, even if Tweety Bird turned out to be a metaphoric dud. The omen part may still amount to something, though.

2525 Wycliff Ave., 214-599-9448. Open 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 1 p.m.-10 p.m. Sunday. $$-$$$

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Oishii - Closed

2525 Wycliff Ave.
Dallas, TX 75219



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