Uptowns Geisha House Offers An On-Again, Off-Again Japanese Dining Experience. Try Going When Its On-Again.
Like so many Asian restaurants, Geisha House sets its tables with disposable wooden chopsticks, the kind you break apart before using. The things are everywhere, so it's hardly a confusing concept. Yet during my first visit to the vast new sushi/teppan spot on Cedar Springs, I overheard a stylish young couple conversing with the hostess. After several minutes, during which I gleaned a level of familiarity between guests and the restaurant, the young woman looked up and said, "I thought we were supposed to get chopsticks."
"Those are chopsticks," the hostess replied.
Oh, well—this is Uptown, where the trappings of cool triumph over authenticity almost every time. Patrons from this affluent stretch of Dallas pride themselves on their global sophistication and are among the first to scoff at supposedly white-bread suburban culture. Yet they often fumble when confronted with real ethnic touches...although, I'll admit, not recognizing chopsticks was a new one.
Another fumble occurred when Barry Tate introduced authentic British pub fare at The Londoner; he found the locals instead wanted wings and other familiar items to go with the venue's good-looking patio. Alberto Lombardi felt it necessary to serve crudo, an Italian marinated fish presentation, with chopsticks at his late Pescabar, apparently assuming Uptown diners would only understand it as sushi. And Chef Tim Byres couldn't make a go of it at his brilliant Standard, now home to the underperforming, stylish and very popular Nick & Sam's Grill.
Certainly there are exceptions, but in Uptown there is a rich appreciation for style over substance. So it's not surprising that Geisha House, wedged in a spacious corner of that upscale Italian residential block known as Gables Villa Rosa, wraps itself in both Asian and inappropriately themed attributes such as happy hour and XM satellite radio. Female staff trundle around uncomfortably in kimonos, but seem content with a "just good enough" understanding of the menu. I watched as one sought to impress the sushi chefs with her knowledge of fish, moving down the case, pointing at each one saying, "That's salmon," "That's tuna," and "Is that yellowtail?"
"That's albacore," the chef corrected—although she nailed about 80 percent, which means guests at her tables mostly know what they're eating after she identifies different sushi items.
On one occasion my waiter wavered between two options before settling on halibut as he presented a sushi tray. But after a few meals at the place, this hardly seems surprising, for the dining experience changes radically from one night to the next. My first visit featured trim, fresh nigiri with bright flesh and clean flavor. Not world-class sushi, by any means, as the rice lacks a certain something, but above the Dallas norm. The next time I was faced with some disturbing pieces: warm and noticeably fishy halibut, salmon so dulled by handling that only a tinny character came through, unnervingly dry and gritty smoked eel.
A specialty creation they call the Geisha blossom is a good example of this tendency to see-saw. The first time I tried this example of Tex-Asian fusion—tempura-fried jalapeño wedges stuffed with cream cheese and seafood—it was striking, with a light, malty crunch underscored by heat and a mellow gush as the filling enveloped the palate. On my next visit, this same appetizer felt like a plodding mess of soggy crust, oppressive cheese and placid "krab." I even had to mash it into the wasabi in order to add some heat, despite the presence of Mexican chile.
Inconsistency is almost always a training issue. But this seems extreme. There are, however, some items that hold their own, at least from my experience. Their tuna, for instance, is delicate and clean, whether served as sashimi, nigiri or in some of their signature dishes. Same with the yellowtail—it is subtle in flavor and cushy in texture. Escolar, the curiously porcelain flesh sometimes labeled "super white tuna," is consistently creamy and mesmerizing. Colorful seaweed salad presents a notable texture and is compellingly dressed in a trio of sweet sauces. And their shrimp nigiri carries a surprisingly pronounced sweetness.
Depending upon who constructs your nigiri, it can be properly bite-sized and touched with just enough wasabi (as on my first trip to the restaurant), or it can wallow over an insignificant, crumbling bump of rice and prove near impossible to eat without embarrassing glances as bits spill from the chopsticks. The nigiri served on my second visit required three bites and a lot of scooping—a very un-Japanese presentation. In general, though, the tuna is decent, the escolar very much worthwhile, the special rolls far too large to handle with ease.
It's unlikely that guests treated to an off-night performance will return, which may spell doom for Geisha House. Negative word of mouth spreads faster and farther than positive, after all. Case in point: As I left the office one evening, our receptionist asked which restaurant was on my list.
"Not telling you," I teased.
"Well," she started, obviously wanting to warn me of something. "I went out last night—we went to Geisha House." Amazing coincidence, I thought. But then she shook her head. "At 3 a.m. my boyfriend and I both got really sick."
This too could be coincidental, a symptom of the flu or vengeance wrought by another food source. I've had several meals there with no adverse effects (and one that was quite pleasing). But word of mouth is critical. And the sushi chefs do this restaurant little good by teetering between better than average and borderline passable, because residents of Uptown crave a new scene and tire quickly of the old—unless there's something compelling to hold their attention.
Geisha House tries to do this through a menu of specialties creations: the aforementioned Geisha blossom, the Geisha roll, the Geisha cracker and whatever else they choose to prefix with the word geisha. The roll claims a topping of snow crab, but it resembles more a sad blend of mayonnaise and artificial "krab." This and a peppery sauce dwarf clumps of good tuna filling the middle. And spindles of tempura-fried softshell crab are oily. It's a roll in need of an identity—and for some reason the restaurant lent it the Geisha name.
Then there's the not-so-delightful tuna delight, a cocktail glass of sushi remnants sopped in mayonnaise. Only a burning chile heat serves as a counter. Cubes of that wonderfully consistent tuna are sacrificed to this ill-advised creation.
Two questions emerge if you've ordered the misnomer that is tuna delight: Why am I continuing to put globs of seasoned mayonnaise in my mouth? The second is more important: Why didn't they bother to fully test recipes and train the staff before opening? Even though sushi chefs will—and should—put some personal flair into each creation, the inconsistency is troubling. But one wonders in addition if, because they located in Uptown, management decided to focus on the patio, the kimonos, the soundtrack and the space.
Well, if you luck out, you'll happen in on the nights when the A team is at work. On those nights Geisha House is worth a visit.
Geisha House 2600 Cedar Springs Road, 469-248-0640. Open 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-11 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m.-midnight Thursday-Friday, 5 p.m.-midnight Saturday, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-11 p.m. Sunday.
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