Puffs of acrid smoke plume from Teppo's yakatori grill, a narrow metal cookery box covered with a bent and loose mesh grate. If you're seated at the sushi bar near the grill, you get to watch the chef brush a diverse assortment of skewered animal parts with sauce and turn the skewers as they cook. You also get a blast of smoke every now and again, leaving you smelling like you have smoked bacon curing under your arms, which might be better than smelling like you have sushi under your arms when you think about it. Under the grill grate smolder chunks of sumi, a Japanese oak charcoal that is prized for the flavor it imparts on grilled foods. The various meats impaled upon those skewers are cut into gem-sized nuggets. And they are varied.
In its purest form, yakatori is chicken threaded onto skewers and cooked over a grateless grill. The flesh is held over the fire by the skewer ends. At Teppo, chicken is offered in serval forms, none of them resembling the McNugget variety. In fact, the list is a veritable last-minute science fair project. There's dark and white meat chicken, sure. But there are also chicken strips, chicken wings, chicken liver, chicken gizzard, chicken heart, chicken meatballs with quail egg and...beef tongue.
Tongue is a delicacy I've never tried before. I don't know why. Maybe it's where it comes from. I don't much relish the thought of French-kissing a cow, but is eating a steer's flanks any less intimate? Or maybe it was once catching a glimpse of a tongue, roots and all, stretched out in a market meat case with its thick base narrowing into a tip with pronounced taste buds popping from the surface in all of their cud-rejuvenating glory.
This experience morphed into a full-blown phobia, one I intended to lick, so to speak. The tongue appeared on a rippled, rectangular plate on a pair of skewers. The tongue meat was indistinguishable from the bunched pieces of chicken gizzard I had ordered with it for comparison. But on closer inspection, there was a striking difference. The tongue was cut into tiny cubes, resembling miniature versions of stew meat. The gizzard nuggets were cut into little globes.
After wrestling a tongue cube from the skewer with chopsticks, I noticed that the interior of the flesh was bright red, like a rare steak, whereas the chicken gizzard was a dusty gray with touches of brown. In the mouth, each exhibited a similar rubbery, gristly sort of texture, with flavors coming almost exclusively from the sauce. It's a sad day of dining when a tongue is indistinguishable from a gullet.
When first confronted with the stuff, it's hard to imagine a food more frightening than sushi, at least before you get accustomed to it, and popping flying fish eggs in your molars and slurping ochre blobs of sea urchin become commonplace. But Teppo has one dish where terrestrial terrors mingle with marine frights. It's the baby squid and beef tripe in shiso tomato sauce. (A typo on the menu read "beef trite," which a server assured me was also a component of the cattle's digestive system. And when you think about it, it makes sense that an animal with five stomachs would have a part that's trite.) This was a difficult dish. The plate held a half dozen or so sauced baby squid arranged in a semicircle around the plate's southern edge. Near the plate's north quadrant was a clump of tripe strips bathed in a pinkish residue. Both tripe and squid were chilled, and the sauce leaned a little on the sweet side. Texturally, both were gelatinous and a little chewy--not anything like the fried calamari or steak gristle a Texan might encounter as distant cousins to this dish. This most certainly is an acquired taste.
It took me a few times to get the hang of uni, too, though it was impeccable. Teppo's uni (sea urchin) is earthy, cool, firm and moist. Hamachi (yellow tail) was like cold, damp silk while the tako (octopus) was soft and resilient with not a hint of rubbery flaccidity.
The Teppo roll is a glorious thing. The core is a rich rose of salmon mingled with cucumber and carrot threads. The exterior is draped with sheets of yellow tail and sections of avocado with the edges dotted with sesame seeds. It's a sensory assault of balanced flavors and textural elegance.
Teppo, which means iron cuisine, according to owner Teiichi Sakurai, is a strikingly minimal but elegant space, littered with just a few tables opposite a sushi bar of polished honey-toned wood that matches the wall paneling. The wall across from the sushi bar has bright nooks sponged in cream-sicle orange and swimming-pool blue that hold bottles, pottery and vases of flowers with wilted greenery. At each table setting are little stones called hashioki upon which you prop your chopsticks when not pinching bits of gizzard or tongue with them. The sound system, emanating from a stack of components in a disheveled corner of the sushi back bar, pipes music from electronic-dance dilettante Moby and other techno jitters. We even heard the theme from Bagdad Café, remixed, it seemed, with some techno anxiety for hipness.
When not delivering food or replacing drained pots of sake, Teppo's service staff paces up and down the center of the restaurant between the sushi bar and the tables. As they move by the tables they scan for dirty dishes or napkins or anything. At one point in the meal, one server darted behind our table and snatched away my empty beef tongue skewers and was gone before I could turn my head. It isn't always this seamlessly orchestrated, though. On one visit our menus were snapped up before we had a chance to order, and the pacing was uneven, with long waits between food ordering and delivery.
Sakurai, a former chef at Royal Tokyo, opened Teppo some six years ago when he decided that Dallas needed a dose of real Japanese culture. He has since gone on to launch the now defunct Tarazza with Costa Arabatzis and Mary Cloutier, and Tei Tei Robata Bar, his tiny Japanese grill. Over the next few months, Sakurai plans to open a lounge called Moosh next to Teppo. (See Hash Over, page 69) He's also working on a restaurant in Las Colinas called Totoya, which will serve kushiyaki, another Japanese variation on grilling. Sakurai's near flawless execution of his tiny driblets of Japanese authenticity have bred him a cadre of fiercely loyal followers in Dallas.
Not that those people are crazy. At Teppo you can even try your hand at cooking his creations yourself. The cook-your-way Kobe beef, peppers and mushroom caps come with a personal grill--a small pot with coals and a mesh screen laid loosely over the top. Pieces of food are pinched with chopsticks and laid upon the grill. For extra pop and splatter action, dip the food into the soy-based sauce before you drape it on the grill grate. Strips of Kobe beef, with an intense ruby hue veined with fat, were like silk. And it may as well have been tartare, because it's hard to wait for the meat to cook.
But not everything is singed on a grill at Teppo. Served cold, the pan-braised duck breast with yuzu pepper mayo sauce comes as an arrangement of round red flesh slices rimmed in a thick ivory bead of fat propped up against a heap of daikon radish threads interlaced with carrot. Swirled in a wavy bead over the meat, the sauce lent a smooth raciness to the breast meat, which was firm, richly flavored and succulent.
Teppo even fries some stuff. Fried snow crab legs covered with bread crumbs were sweet and crunchy and came with a hollowed-out lemon half filled with a robust tartar sauce. Also cold was the bonita salad with barely seared medallions of fish with a strip of silvery skin still clinging to the edge. The fish reeked with clean sea-washed aromas and flavors that melted on the tongue--a trite phrase if there ever was one.
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