Adjusted expectations

I'm a member of the marginal luck club. That is, luck shows itself in my life so mysteriously and obscurely--you might say, in fact, so obliquely--that it may not be discernible as good fortune to those to whom more obvious blessings are distributed by Whoever Dispenses Such Things.

I've never won the lottery, for instance. (Do you think I'd still be writing this column?) But I measure my good fortune in little ways, some so small you'd be fair to question my vocabulary. "Boy, am I lucky," I might say when I find a good parking place in Deep Ellum. I can always find a four-leaf clover (if I can find a patch of clover). And-- proof of happy fortune, indeed--I was not the unlucky diner who ate the sixth piece of X-Dragon Lady sushi (the one we thought was a cowboy roll) on the plate two weeks ago at Deep Sushi.

The X-Dragon Lady is named for co-owner and sushi chef Tetsuji Yamaguchi's ex-wife, whom he dubbed the "Dragon Lady" even while they were together deep in nuptial bliss and business, first at Sushiyama (remember that little place out by where Kazy's Japanese Market used to be?) and then at Yamaguchi, the semifusion restaurant near Lovers and Inwood. Exit the Dragon Lady and enter X-Dragon Lady sushi, one of the items on the menu at Deep Sushi, Deep Ellum's first sushi bar.

Close your eyes. Imagine a sushi bar in Deep Ellum. Open your eyes. I am very sure you just had a vision of Deep Sushi, because it's precisely the sort of sushi bar you'd expect in Deep Ellum. The place has all that self-conscious style striving for offhandedness that is the unifying motif of Deep Ellum restaurant design. It's small, dim, and loud, and the booze bar is as long as the sushi bar, not to mention much more crowded. It has none of the serenity of the Japanese aesthetic and all the freneticism of the Deep Ellum hotspot. Actually, if not for the giant Edo-style graffiti painting on one wall and, of course, the sushi bar at the back, this could be any bar in Deep Ellum. You can skip the sushi, in fact, and just sit at the bar. Or you can sit at a table and pretend Deep Sushi is a Continental restaurant.

The food won't fool you. There's no Sun and Star slant here; Deep Sushi is not a deeply Japanese restaurant intent on reproducing a little piece of Japanese culture in Dallas. Sushi is secondary to scene here. Deep Sushi is probably the least Japanese-feeling Japanese restaurant in Dallas because it's already part of a distinct and different homegrown culture, the all-so-hip culture that is Deep Ellum downtown. The Japanese menu is really just part of that picture. Sushi is still code for cool, after having become the coolest possible cuisine in the '80s partly because (you've heard this theory of mine before) everyone was so hopped up during that decade that they weren't very hungry anyway--and Japanese food is the perfect solution to dinner without hunger.

Lunch, for instance, feeds you, sparely, from a functional menu designed for a quick working meal. If you don't choose from the sushi list, you can order a bento box filled with sushi, teriyaki chicken, and so forth, or your choice of New Americanized Japanese food, like a chicken "salad" with grilled and tempura chicken strips arranged around nondescript greens blobbed with strong garlic dressing, almost like a relish. The dinner menu expands to include "traditional Japanese dinners" and "sushi dinners."

We sat at the sushi bar one evening, and the chef offered us octopus, its speckled tendrils swimming with petals of cucumber in a bowl of tart savory dressing. It was our mistake not to order more and then put ourselves in the chef's hands and allow him to choose what we ate. I suspect that is how you would get the best meal at Deep Sushi. Yamaguchi plays with sushi; he throws out tradition and invents wild hybrids like Cajun and "scorpion" rolls with crawfish, jalapeno rolls, and even Philadelphia rolls, which sound like sushi you'd eat for breakfast on the Upper West Side.

Wine is impossible with Japanese food, although it is available--so we ordered Ichiban beer, which was served in frosted glasses that were replaced each time we ordered fresh beer. In Japan, you never fill your own glass; you pour your buddy's beer and he pours yours. It's a friendly ritual that only slightly increases your chances of elbowing over a water glass. We were lucky and everything remained vertical.

We started with some sushi snacks: an order of cucumber rolls--refreshing cucumber slivers rolled in nori with sushi rice; some slices of pristine yellowtail sashimi; and an order of X-Dragon Lady rolls from which, as I said, I escaped unharmed. However, the friend not obscured by ficus leaves ate an entire roll--raw tuna and avocado seasoned overgenerously with wasabi, red pepper, and hot mustard--before turning all the successive hues of an enraged squid while at the same time coming across with a good impression of Curly's face when his eyes are being poked in by Moe. Love dies hard, Yamaguchi-san, but there's something contradictory about taking your disappointment out on the very customers who are making child support or settlement payments possible. Of course, spicy food inspires contradictory behavior, and, when his voice returned, the same squid-colored companion immediately ate another X-Dragon Lady roll.

Tuna tataki, ordered from the list of appetizers--little rounded cubes of barely seared tuna, the cooked rim holding the translucently purple, raw meat in a firm circle--were succulent but slightly resistant to the teeth, and clean-tasting. Kobashira kaki-age was a mass of carrot shreds and bay scallops bound together in one of those miraculously elusive Japanese batters that seem like crisped air, but unfortunately, you couldn't taste the seafood or the vegetables. The plate of grilled vegetables and fried Japanese eggplant held three thin slices of eggplant alternating with char-striped peppers, all circled around a bowl of ginger-scented dipping sauce; the eggplant was good but seemed scant for $6.50. And a bowl of udon noodles was wrong-flavored, the broth too sweet and dark and flavored with excessive soy, and the coiled noodles thick, gluey, and sullen in the bottom of the bowl.

Remember that the best food at Deep Sushi isn't really Japanese and it isn't American, but is something else entirely. Sometimes luck is a matter of adjusting your expectations. Sit at the sushi bar, have a beer, suspend your culinary disbelief for a moment, and remember that this would be more accurately labeled a sushi-themed bar, and you'll have good fortune with your food at Deep Sushi. Oh, and unless you're such a downtown devotee that you believe pain can be pleasure, stay away from the X-Dragon Lady.

Deep Sushi, 2524 Elm, (214) 651-1177. Open for lunch Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; for dinner Monday-Wednesday, 6 p.m.-11 p.m.; Thursday, 6 p.m.-midnight; Friday-Saturday, 6 p.m.-1 a.m.

Deep Sushi:
Grilled Vegetables and Fried Japanese Eggplant $6.50
Tuna Tataki $10
Bay Scallops with Vegetables Tempura $6.50
Roast Duckling in Brandy and Soy Sauce $14.95
Spicy Octopus with Seaweed and Cucumber $6
Salmon Skin Roll $4.25
X-Dragon Lady Roll $6

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