It's funny how people in Dallas refer to everything north of LBJ as some kind of untamed wilderness. They call it "way up north," or "Oklahoma," even the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But that's just silly. Plano and its less civilized siblings Frisco and Allen aren't populated simply with feral soccer parents and savage Land Cruiser pilots. They have great produce and a Sur La Table. And they can pack more restaurants on a street corner than Dallas can pack strip clubs. Seems like it anyway.
Some of those restaurants are even what you might call exotic. Maybe not as exotic as a leopard leotard on a fire-pole dancer, but exotic nonetheless. Take Japon for example. Japon is everything you'd expect a Japanese restaurant to be resting on the northern edge of civilization. It's clean and stylish. The staff is polite. It has lots of sharply honed woodwork keenly applied. It has two televisions in the bar. With cable. It has suave door handles.
And the things that could be most offensive are minimized. There aren't any koi ponds here. The lucky bamboo planters are kept to a minimum. And there's no sushi bar per se. Instead, the sushi bar is a kind of decorative addition tacked onto the bar that dispenses drinks--a curvaceous, green granite embellishment. Sushi display cases occupy a tiny segment of the bar space. Sushi serving dishes are stacked in front of rows of liquor bottles.
But that's nothing to worry about. It's possible to have stellar sushi in a place that doesn't look like it gives a halibut gizzard about presentation. We asked the chef if he had any uni (sea urchin). The chef said no. He seemed a dejected fellow, like maybe he's thinking about changing careers, one where he'd get more respect and fan mail. A hibachi chef for instance. He says Japon used to have uni, but they usually sold just one order at most. It became too much of a bother to keep on hand. "The people who come in here don't seem much interested in sushi," he admits.
Seems like it. Most of the activity in Japon happens next door, where they have the hibachi grills. Here they take steaks, shrimp, lobster and chicken and transform them into circus animals, a mighty hard act for a strip of raw tuna slumped on a rice billet to compete with. We ordered a couple of standard things from the sushi bar--tuna, hamachi (yellow tail), a couple of rolls--not expecting very much. The chef explained he could give us strips of tuna that would almost be like the prized toro (the belly section of the fish) if we wanted. So that's pretty much what we settled for--items that were almost delicacies, but not quite.
Except for one, perhaps, yet it wasn't sushi. It was an appetizer. The waitress seemed hesitant to even let me order it. When I asked her about the baby octopus, she said, "They have the head still on. You don't want that." I have to admit, the way she went on about the heads did fill me with a little morbid curiosity, even if I really just ordered them so she would say, "You're not from around here, are you?"
But they were good, even the heads. Four whole octopod tots, stained with chili pepper, were arranged in a slightly curving line on a plate edge. The opposite edge was devoted to a bird's nest of shredded carrot and a small sprig of parsley. It was simple, but visually arresting, and the octopus were firm, well-seasoned, and they went crunch in the molars (I think it was the heads).
But the sushi had none of this visual aplomb. Now, the best sushi is a combination of high-quality sea flesh, rigorously precise preparation and meticulous, visually arresting presentation. Japon's sushi was served on an ordinary white cafeteria plate.
Not that the fish was flawed. The toro-wannabe tuna was smooth and cool, if just a little stringy. Hamachi was delicate and silky, and the tako was firm and chewy, if a little spongy. Flying fish roe was barely adequate: a bit warm, a little dull and not particularly fluffy. My guess is they don't serve much of this either.
But the spicy tuna roll worked well, soaked through and through with a thick, modestly spicy sauce.
Alaskan roll was the only item that winked at presentation dexterity, odd though it was. The monstrous roll was little more than a California roll sheathed in fleshy sheets of salmon. Arranged in a large circle on one of those cafeteria plates, it essentially looked like a pink meat bundt cake. Yet it was cool and fresh-tasting.
Perhaps the best bit of sushi fare sampled was the scallop, a smooth satiny strip of white flesh neatly belted to a rice pad via a seaweed strip. It was clean and opulent.
Though the bar area is handsome with comfortable booths and a row of palm fans above that undulate back and forth like table-tennis paddles in slow motion, most people opt for the grill acrobatics in the next room over, a sort of a Benihana-wannabe.
When we sat down at one of the in-the-table griddles, a chef at the next table over was bouncing and bobbing a piece of shrimp off the griddle and flinging it in the air for the diners to catch in their mouths. This continued for a good long time, making the whole group look like a fleet of dolphins at a poorly engineered Sea World show.
What's difficult to do in one of these culinary hibachi game rooms is converse. Between the rattle and hum of the exhaust fans just above you and the constant din of sizzle on the griddles, it's difficult to communicate with the person next to you other than by shouting or cell phone.
And God help you if there are birthdays in the place. With birthdays, the whole place erupts into a flurry of singing that sounds more like yelling, clapping and pounding drums. There were four birthdays on our visit, with at least three unleashing a barrage of hysterical shrieks from children, the kind of noise that can only be stifled with high-pressure hoses.
Which is perhaps what this place needed, because the culinary festivities begin with pyrotechnics. The chef squirts a flood of McCormick vodka onto the griddle from a mustard squeeze bottle, and then touches it off with a flame, creating a fiery torrent that vaporizes body hair. Next he takes an egg and spins it around the griddle surface, flicks it up with the spatula, tosses it into his toque, hurls it into the exhaust fan hood, spins it on the edge of the spatula, and then tosses it back into the air, allowing it to land on the spatula edge, thereby splitting it for frying. God it's fun to play with food when you have a hibachi license.
How does it taste? Not bad. Not great either. The meal starts off with a bowl of crab soup, a clean broth that tastes like chicken with scallions and crabmeat shreds floating in it. Dinners include rice and a hibachi vegetable combination of onion, zucchini and carrot, among other things.
Seafood, beef, chicken or combinations of any two can be ordered to dance upon the griddle, though when it comes to the meats, the acrobatics tend to die down a little, maybe because a strip of sizzling steak smarts more in the face than an egg.
King crab legs were cooked on the griddle in the shell. The meat was good, if a little soggy. Shrimp was good, too, squirted with soy as the chef worked it. It was plump and a little chewy, not overly juicy. But the scallops, set aside for a good time on a piece of griddle real estate, were scorched on both sides and had a firm, creamy texture that was sweet and rich.
Sheened in teriyaki, the salmon was remarkably good, with firm, flaky textures. Strips of filet mignon that accompanied it were juicy and rich. Lobster was a pair of tails that were stripped of meat on the griddle. The white meat was laid flat on the griddle and rapidly cut into small pieces. The chef perched one tail shell in front of my place setting and animated the thing, moving the tip of its tail like a mouth, adding a voice for it, but I couldn't understand what the tail was saying, so the chef got bored with it and went back to cooking. Actually, the lobster flesh was delicious, rich and tender, with no stringy obtuseness or mushiness.
For the final show punch, the chef constructed a column of raw onion rings, with rings ascending from largest to smallest. It looked like an upside-down funnel, or a Michelin Man volcano. He shot a few hearty squirts of McCormick vodka down the small hole and then set it aflame. Blue flames shot out of the hole with the vigor of a fighter jet afterburner. It shot perhaps 8 inches out of the top until the flame branched out into tight orange tendrils. We were startled, yet at the same time profoundly grateful he didn't toss shrimp into the air and make us catch them with our mouths. It's amazing how civilized it really is up here.
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