The Twain Meet
There's no sushi bar here. (But there is sushi.) There's counter seating equipped with an expansive view of the square open kitchen. It's like watching ballet, the daredevil kind with knives and flames. Orders come in, and chef-owner Seiji Wakabayashi ladles orange fluid into a saucepan. Another pan gets a splash of broth, a pinch of vegetable slivers and a ladle of tofu cubes.
The former is carrot soup, deceptively simple, surprisingly broad--the marks of a successful romance before it turns menacing. It's nothing but caramelized onions, carrot, salt and pepper pureed into the shade of bright orange you find in Popsicles, but it's delicious. The latter is miso soup, a taintless broth not overrun by salt, but cluttered with strands of carrot, zucchini and squash bobbing among the standard tofu cubes and scallion rings.
Wakabayashi calls his craft nouvelle Japanese, adding yet another twist to the fusion blather polluting culinary discourse. ("Fusion" should only be used to describe bombs.) This means Japanese with European sensibilities, though one wonders how Japanese cuisine could possibly be improved upon. Hell, it can't. What the nouvelle part does is peer at Japanese cuisine from a different vantage point, a viable attempt in the border-collapsing, time-zone-blurring world of broadband.
Miso soup $2.50
Mixed seaweed salad $8
Foie gras $15
Eel carpet ride $10
Bento box $12
Kobe beef $12
Clam pasta bowl $9
California bowl $7.50
The results at Waka are subtle. It's not unusual for Japanese chefs to fiddle with foie gras, that French treatment of waterfowl liver. Teiichi Sakurai does a masterful rendition at Tei Tei Robata Bar. Yet Wakabayashi trumps even this elevated effort. It's not that his seared beige-mottled lobes feature unusual levels of rich silkiness. It's how they're framed. The lobes arrive resting on a cushion of bright orange yam mash. Bordering this cushion is a stream of plum-wine balsamic and dribbles of vanilla oil. The yam, with a slightly chestnut flavor, blends seamlessly with the vanilla bean, broadening the urgent hints at sweetness. Sauternes, France's sweet wine from Bordeaux, is often cited as the perfect accompaniment to foie gras. Wakabayashi's treatment mimics its silken luster, capturing the nuttiness and the sweet with the balsamic hovering on the sidelines, amplifying the sweet while injecting fruit and acid. To foil it, he tops the lobes with chervil, a mild herb with just a powder-puff spice punch--ballet on a platter.
Mixed seaweed salad isn't so much a European-Asian confluence as it is a clash of realms, a surf 'n' turf of flora. Three strains of seaweed--white, red and green--are tossed with baby greens, flecked with sesame seeds and washed in light ginger vinaigrette.
The kitchen choreography hovers at the same level as the food. One chef works over a cutting board, urgently driving a spindle into a shaved cylindrical hunk of daikon radish, the ends of the spindle protruding from either end. He slips the hunk into a machine with a handle, settling the spindle ends into slots. When the handle is cranked, shavings are gradually spun into a daikon heap.
The kitchen artistry reached its apex with the eel carpet ride, which sounds like a piece of performance art developed by Larry Flynt. Rice tiled with spinach leaves and a sheet of eel is driven through a plastic mold, forcing it into a plank shape, the excess rice grains sloughed from the clean lines. The chef removes the mold and grasps a vicious-looking knife, dipping the blade tip in a saucepan of hot water. He perches the knife upright on its handle, allowing the water to dribble down the length of the blade, before cutting the plank in half, then fourths, then eighths and so on, segmenting from side to side. After each cut, he wipes the blade between the folds of a towel, dipping the tip into the saucepan and repeating the process in a seemingly endless cycle of precise rhythmic cuts. Once the plank segmentation is complete, he gathers the pieces with a pair of metal chopstick-like needles and deposits them on a plate, squirting thick mirin (sweet sake) and soy sauce over the surface before shooting a squeeze-bottle stream of sesame seeds over the shiny mirin ooze. The flavor isn't that much different from unagi (eel sushi), except for the mineral flavors pitched in by the spinach.
Not all of this clever forging reaches loftiness. Uni tempura is more bizarre mutant than blurt of culinary dazzle. Two tightly bound seaweed scrolls lean on the side of a dish, while a rat's nest of red and yellow beet, leek and carrot splashed with a lemon-truffle oil dressing tangles at the base. Inside the dark green wraps, mottled by psoriasis-like tempura scaliness, is uni (sea urchin roe) mingled with oba leaf, an Asian herb with mint and basil sensibilities. The seaweed sheath was tough and required a firm bite to penetrate. This simple clamping of the jaws forced the orange uni, now in liquid form on account of the frying process, from the seaweed roll ends in multidirectional, embarrassingly airworthy streams. This one must have sounded great on paper.
California roll in a bowl was swell, though. A tall bowl, narrow at the base and wide at the mouth, is filled with rice and has a carpet of minced crabmeat studded with tobiko caviar serving as a centerpiece. A sliced avocado half occupies one edge, while a single upended tempura shrimp rests near the opposite edge along with cucumber slivers and tempura vegetables. Simply put, this is an amplified parody of the ubiquitous California roll, only better. The crab (as opposed to the universal surimi staple) was the most intensely sweet we've stumbled upon in recent memory. Shrimp was good, too.
It's no surprise that Waka hawks Kobe beef. Yet, like nearly everything else here, it's delivered in twisted form. The stuff is marinated in miso for a week, quickly pan-seared, thinly sliced and draped over thin cuttings of Granny Smith apple. The fusion part arrives in the form of a piece of camembert cheese. The tasty slices don't melt in the mouth; they kind of break apart into slightly stiff sections. And instead of thin veins of fat ranging through the slightly dry meat, the deep plum rose flesh has fat stowed in pockets, like slices of Italian salami.
A long black plastic Bento box instills lunch discipline. Each of the three compartments is filled with a chef's daily whim. On our visit, one of the side compartments was divided into two tiny dishes, one with pickled carrot filaments, the other a tiny salad of sliced gold and red grape tomatoes with mushrooms: both delicious. The other side space had an un-noteworthy crab cake and cigar de mer, a halved fried spring roll filled with a sausage composed of scallop, shrimp and squid. Topped with a wavering bead of tomato chili sauce, this spring roll broke more than a few tedious molds. The center compartment blew the doors off its flanks, though. It contained a bundle of blanched bok choy stretched from compartment corner to compartment corner. Over that was a small wedge of grilled salmon in a creamy lemongrass sauce. The meat was firm and moist--a texture that flaked.
A bowl of pasta and clams was compelling simplicity: perfect pasta strands, tender sweet clams, mushrooms, a few scallion rings in a broth brewed from seaweed and dried bonita shavings--that's it. But what a dance.
Wakabayashi comes to Dallas from the kitchen of Ondine in Sausalito, California. This is his first restaurant.
But not his last. Wakabayashi plans to add more stretch marks to the fusion curio with Namdena Asian Tapas, a place he will operate with the owners of River Spice Thai Restaurant just off Lower Greenville. Let's hope it's just as deliciously deranged.
18900 Dallas Parkway, 972-713-6451. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday; open for dinner 5:30 p.m-10:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 5 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Sunday. $$-$$$
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