Restaurant Reviews

Bomb Shelter

He pulls it out from a manila folder stuffed with other old photographs. "This is me," says sushi evangelist Scott Melton, pointing to one of three boys in short-sleeved white shirts with slivers of black ties slicing across their surfaces. "It's kind of Lee Harvey Oswaldish, isn't it?" It was.

The black-and-white photo is dated 1964. Melton was 18. In the background is a sheriff, his hat floating above the boys in eerie Jack Ruby reminiscence. "That's Brian Jones," Melton says, pointing to the blond-mopped boy in the center. Jones, of course, was the much-lauded founder of the Rolling Stones who was found dead at the bottom of his swimming pool a mere five years after this photo was snapped. Melton says the pic is from "Teen Fair" at the Joe Freeman Coliseum in San Antonio. He played drums in one of the bands that played the same day as the Stones.

Melton pulls out another photo of him and his son with the late comedian Chris Farley, taken the year he died. One hopes this folder isn't a chronology of Melton posing with famous cadavers. His real life is more interesting than that. After all, he's a restaurateur with a history of modest successes, long failures, partnership squabbles, lawsuits and lots of wasabi to cauterize the wounds.

Melton says his sushi jones clipped him just after he was pried from a 20-something-year marriage. He used raw fish to remedy the disorienting life shift, which compulsively drove him to Yamaguchi's on Inwood Road. The stuff attracted Melton, and he figured he could take it to a different--perhaps hipper--level. "It's pretty to look at, but it's good for you to eat," Melton says. "And I find people who eat sushi--and really like it--are fun. They're interesting. They went out on a limb at one time in their life to try raw fish."

Thus Melton opened Deep Sushi in Deep Ellum in 1996. But not long after the restaurant got traction, Melton's limited partners voted him out of the restaurant.

In part to spite his former partners, Melton opened Sushi Nights just a few yards away from Deep Sushi in 1998. He did well for a while, feeding bootstrapping Internet upstarts as well as the bulging payrolls of Yahoo! But the bubble pop knocked him on his halibut. Melton walked away from Sushi Nights in May of last year and set about to scour the city for backers and real estate to continue his sushi quest.

The combination of backers and real estate (or paucity thereof) landed him in the West End, where he hoped to spice up the corporate restaurant contingency--T.G.I. Friday's, On the Border, Spaghetti Warehouse, Corner Bakery--that inhabits what was once a hot nightlife stretch.

Melton burrowed into the former Johnny Rockets space and opened Atomic Sushi & Grill. Johnny Rockets is a national 1950s-style diner/malt-shop chain, and to avoid a costly makeover, Melton craftily merged his raw fish into a 1950s nuclear-tipped Red scare. For him, Melton says, the '50s bring back memories of hiding under desks during nuclear-attack drills. So he splashed this restaurant (he's the developer and general manager) with fallout shelter signs designating rest rooms and filled the menu with dishes like meltdown special, beef fusion, atomic spicy chicken and San Francisco seafood fusion.

The latter is a collection of seafood confetti crowded with scraps of vegetation, most of them in brilliant shades of searing green in a potent brown sauce that is equally searing. Lobster tail segments dominate, a peculiar characteristic for a restaurant that sought to economize by incorporating Johnny Rockets duds rather than replace them. But all is good here. The tail hulls harbor creamy white meat loaded with bittersweet brine. And though it's more briny than sweet, more chewy than rich, it skirts the dry twine consistency that comes from frozen-then-heat-tortured tails that infest most moderately priced lobster dishes. Shrimp is plump and firm, too, though not bursting with compelling sea flavors that can make these creatures titillate beyond their means. Scallops were mushy, but the terrestrial flora--zucchini, broccoli, carrot, an asparagus stalk here and there--were impeccable.

Of course, this thermonuclear entrée isn't sushi. But it's perhaps difficult for an exclusively raw-fish diner to survive in an area within spitting range of Hooters. "There was no Asian place down here, period," Melton says. "That's why the menu went P.F. Chang-looking as well as sushi."

The P.F. Chang's wannabe dishes are under the heading China Syndrome. They include lettuce wraps, but instead of brilliantly green, crisp and dripping iceberg leaves the size of concert shells, you get slightly faded little runt cups. Instead of a potent little chicken mix stained with a peppy brown sauce, this iceberg stuffing is subdued, maybe even dull. And busy. The chicken was minced into obscurity and hidden behind a dust storm of scallions, crispy rice noodles, bell pepper specks, pulverized carrot, celery and egg (I liked the egg part). But there was nothing really compelling in the mix. It needs some kind of aromatic jazz punch: chilies, lemongrass and cilantro maybe. Why not give Chang's a Thai choker?

Of course, that would run counter to Atomic's attempted "me too" Chang mainstreaming, and it might scare off those Melton might peel away from their T.G.I. Friday's or Hooters habits.

But wouldn't Bombay chicken do the same? Though it can be had in similar shades, curry is generally not something that pairs well with orange hot pants. Gad, but this dish is tight, at least from a flavor-profile perspective. The dirty-yellow curry sauce is smooth, potent and exquisitely balanced with a subtle thread of ginger that explodes on the palate every now and again, keeping the tongue on its buds. The chicken is juicy, tender and firm.

Yet this Bombay bash has one problem: onions. Under normal circumstances, I have no problem with onions. They add dimension to everything from salads to stocks to potatoes. But this otherwise sublime dish is overrun with acres of coarsely cut white onions that swamp the red bell pepper scraps and the chicken.

Still, the headline here is Japanese, and some of it is as compelling as the curry. Smoked squid salad is a little slump of pink squid strips pummeled with sesame seeds and sown with strips of brown and green seaweed and little scraps of bell pepper and carrot shavings. It's all packed in a tiny blue bowl and washed with ponzu sauce. The smoke is subdued, the squid meat tender but firm enough to solicit a hearty chew.

Other elements work as well. The edamame is bright green (without any brown blotches), warm and supple with a generous blizzard of sea salt. Miso soup is rich with tofu, seaweed and scallion confetti. To seal the Japanese deal in concrete, a large post bursting from the '50s diner décor is painted with a sumo wrestler.

But Melton hangs his rep on sushi, and he always seems to put respectable stuff on those rice plugs: not stellar, but cool and consistent--workhorse fish. The strips (yellow tail, tuna, red snapper) were silky and smooth. The California roll was tight but unexciting.

But can sushi make it in the West End? A chat with some of the carriage drivers who trot horses around the cobblestone down there say the West End is mostly an orphan at night. The American Airlines Center was supposed to change that (as well as turn downtown and parts of Oklahoma into thriving metros), but the developers wisely sought to keep their captive audience satiated by offering more food options than a sushi joint, no matter how many culinary mutants erupt from an enriched plutonium burst. The lingering corpses of Planet Hollywood and the movie theaters don't help either.

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz

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