Sushi slights

There was a fierce rainstorm, the kind that falls in relentless sheets. Only a handful of cars were in the Deep Ellum lot across the street--no flashlight-waving lot attendants. No one to pay. Perhaps the attendant was holed up in one of those cars.

As I approached the entrance to Sushi Nights, water gushed from the downspouts. Pale-skinned pincushions darted down the street with umbrellas bubbled over their heads, maybe in fear that their tattoos would be stripped from their bodies in the torrent.

I entered the place and stood in the doorway, dripping. Launched by Scott Melton in the former Lava Lounge space after his stint at Deep Sushi around the block went sour, Sushi Nights is a raw fish warehouse with seemingly too much room. It has a big bar, a big dining room. The space above was once an apartment. More tables reside there. An ocean-liner-size sushi bar is tucked in back near a stage where bands roll and rumble on Friday nights and the occasional Saturday.

It looks more makeshift than any sushi bar you've ever seen. A long, sparkling brushed metallic counter frames two sides of its rectangular shape. Billowing rolls of fabric hang above the main opening. Other, smaller openings in the wall have candles resting on a sill. The thing looks as if it were once a roomy storage closet. You half expect to see a plastic trash can holding dingy upended mops parked in the corner next to a power floor scrubber. (Actually, Melton says it was once a burger kitchen left over from one of the space's previous incarnations).

This is not to say the raw fish is makeshift. It's not. But it's not great either. For one thing, it needs to chill out. Almost every piece tried was just slightly below room temperature. More annoying than temperature is the price. This stuff is expensive--most of it a buck more than you would pay at virtually any other sushi spot.

California roll was good. Uni was mediocre. Tuna wasn't bad. Nor was the taco (octopus), and it was attractively presented with a bright red dot of hot sauce in the middle of the seaweed band binding it. Smelt roe was fluffy and attractively garnished with sprigs of slivered cucumber sprouting out of the bundle, but the taste was slightly off.

By far the biggest disappointment was the hamachi (yellowtail): warm, thin, stringy, fishy tasting, and lacking the typically nutty flavor. On another visit, we ordered yellowtail sashimi, and it was fresh, cool, and tender, though the flavor was still a little weak.

The most successful sushi was the scallop roll, a rendition with tender, sweet scallops wallowing in a spicy mayonnaise sauce. Good.

While Sushi Night's pricey sushi is little better than adequate, that's no reason to stay away. This is a terrific place, a spot with raw character. Most of the servers are rock-and-roll musicians or record-label reps or producers or some other similar species. "Guys from Baboon work here, Weener work here, Tomorrowpeople work here, Floor 13 works here," Melton says, ticking off the bands to which his employees have membership.

Then there's the music. Dark, creaking stuff with lush vocals pasted over odd harmonic progressions that trek gruelingly over musical staves of grime and grit and steady percussive stabs. I found myself asking our server for artist identities after every other song. She either said she didn't know or would forget the name on the trip back from the bar. Whoever programs the tunes here has killer taste. If Sushi Nights packs some of this sonic wallpaper in a compilation, I'll be the first in line to pick one up.

The servers are kind of funny too. One of my companions asked what wine they served, specifically if they had a pinot noir. The server came back and said they didn't have any "pee-knot." Rock and roll ain't brain pollution.

The non-sushi side of the menu edges up a few notches and is quite good--and not unreasonably priced. Shrimp tempura was succulent with a crisp, agile coating--not gummy or chalky as it too often is at other Japanese places. At 15 bucks, the grilled salmon was delicious: tender, rich, and flaky. The fish is accompanied by a proprietary invention: a bowl of lively, savory lime-ginger sauce that beautifully enhances the meat without clouding its natural flavors. Chicken teriyaki also hit highs: tender, moist, and slathered in a light, nimble teriyaki sauce.

Shrimp in the Vietnamese spring rolls looked like fat bugs trapped in laminate. The thick rice-noodle rolls featured a pair of the things stuck on top just under the milky, semi-transparent rice-paper sheath, pressing them tightly into the roll's heft. Yet the rolls were outstanding: crisp and moist with sweet shrimp and mint leaves interwoven with lettuce.

Smoked squid salad was another sock-knocker: firm, chewy squid tangled with seaweed strips and tiny rings of chili pepper over slices of crisp cucumber in soy-based vinaigrette. It all coalesced with racy savor.

Also hitting highs were the green mussels, shellfish smothered in a creamy wine sauce. The just about perfect shellfish luxuriated in buttery swellness. The only non-sushi item that disappointed was the kushiyaki yakitori, which features a choice of meats on skewers. A quail and shrimp pairing (on separate skewers) held grilled bits of dry, over-singed bird and a couple of stringy, mushy shrimp.

But maybe the shrimp shipment got sogged in the deluge. I know I did. When we left Sushi Nights, the evening sun was straining to rent peepholes through the clouds. The gush from the restaurant's drainpipes dissipated to trickling spurts. When I got to the parking lot, the attendant was standing next to my car. "You're lucky. I saved you," he snickered. "I could have had you towed for not paying. But I saved you." I handed him the necessary six bucks while the rain-skittish twit shamelessly hinted at a tip for having the graciousness to refrain from calling the parking gestapo.

So I gave him one. I suggested that if he had a yen for yellowtail, to stick with the sashimi.

The first dish I had at Genghis Grill, club operator Jeff Sinelli's (Main Street Asylum, Gold Bar) Mongolian barbecue, frankly sucked, but I have no one to blame but myself. Well, not entirely. The frozen shrimp were a little hard and tasteless, but I totally muffed the seasonings, creating a dish as dull as drywall.

And this is the beauty of Genghis Grill. Because you can test your creations on the fly and then go back for retrials as many times as you want. After you create a melange from a large collection of ingredients from the food bar, you hand it off to one of Genghis' grillers. They dump the stuff onto a large, circular griddle and do this chop-chop thing on the food clump with these long sticks until the dish is done. Then they shove a bowl of steamed rice topped with a tortilla under your nose, and you're off to your table.

The food is clustered along a side wall near the back. You have meats--beef, pork, chicken, turkey, lamb, cod, squid, shrimp--and veggies, everything from snow peas, broccoli, and bok choy to pineapple, carrots, and tomatoes. Sauces include soy, teriyaki, hoisin, sweet-and-sour, chili-garlic--even lemon-water and wine. Racked dry seasonings include powdered garlic and ginger, peppers, jerk seasoning, salt, seasoned salt, sesame seeds, and dill. Fresh seasonings include cilantro and scallions. The whole assembly can be greased with your choice of three lubricants: canola, sesame, or olive oil.

On that first try, I worked from one of the canned recipes (seafood) posted on the wall with some slight modifications. I quickly learned these suggestions are useful only as rough benchmarks. They don't zing with enough zest.

Or you can ignore them entirely and go on instinct. I did this on my second try, with lamb, and the results were much better. I used olive oil, went heavy on the chili-garlic sauce, added ginger and black pepper, even pinched a little jerk over it. But the basic ingredient helped too. Though a little fatty, the tender lamb was rich in sweetness.

Most of the ingredients on this bar are in good to excellent shape. The only deviations were the pork, which was tough and stringy, and the broccoli, which was browning and limp (on a second visit it was bright green and fluffy).

Another drawback is the size of the serving spoons in the dried spices. The spoon bowls are too big, making precise measuring difficult.

Also, Genghis' grill is visually unappealing. Every now and again, the grillers scrape the thing and fling singed goo against the white tiled walls, making the space look like one of those neglected public restrooms that terrorize you into constipation. Errant grill debris can also infect your creations with stray flavors.

But these are modest worries. This Lower Greenville rendition of the Mongolian barbecue is immensely engaging, a place, for better or worse, to see how your skill with seasonings stacks up.

Sushi Nights. 2604 Main St., (214) 752-0100. Open for lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday; open for dinner 6-11 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday, 6 p.m.-midnight Thursday, and 6 p.m.-1 a.m. Friday and Saturday. $$-$$$

Genghis Grill. 1915 Greenville Ave., (214) 841-9990. Open for lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday; Open for dinner 5:30 p.m.-midnight daily. $-$$


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