Restaurant Reviews

Crab Case

Make your way to SushiSamba, even if it's just for one thing and one thing only. If you can stand the thick swatches of bright pink, saturated red, pureed mango and searing green that merge and flood until diners are capped in bordello halos, if you can raise your threshold for the pounding of nightclub cacophony engineered by hip-swiveling DJs, then make your way to the front and peep at the glass bowl of crawly sawagani. Sawagani are tiny freshwater crabs that thrive in rivers and streams all over Japan. They look like spiders in traffic cone-orange cat suits. Sawagani are notorious cannibals, say the servers, and manage a lifespan of just nine months.

Secure a table, even if it's one of the diminutive cocktail tables made of sliced logs in the bar. Order the flash-fried sawagani and perhaps a tiny glass of Tozai Nigori: "sake voices in the mist." It's chilled and milky with a chalky grip that skids across the palate almost like a muscle-bound Cabernet would. It opens with a shadowy sweetness, like jicama, and leaves with racy bitterness, like broccolini.

Dare think of Eight-Legged Freaks—the 2002 sci-fi thriller featuring vicious and gigantic spiders—and you'll be spooked before the plate arrives. Resist. The four crabs rest on a strip of banana leaf on glass; their claws are cocked, their legs uplifted in attack pose, frozen in place from the fry. Squeeze the scorched half-lemon and rain the juice over them liberally. Pinch a crab and force it between your lips quickly. Don't think. Don't reflect. Just chew. Notice how the shell shatters like a thick potato chip. Feel how the innards compress and leak over your tongue like melted butter. Taste the subtle aquatic traces laced through the mouth in their wake. Feel the sea salt melt and merge with the tang of the lemon. Sawagani crabs taste almost like popcorn, albeit popped in a few drops of fish sauce. Savor—this is likely the closest you'll come to intentionally eating insects.

A few of the legs will drop from the bodies. No worries. Pinch them with chopsticks to retrieve some dignity. Chewing the legs is good, you'll notice. More potato chip.

When the crabs are finished off, order more sake or risk your sense on one of SushiSamba's shochu-based (a Japanese spirit distilled from rice or barley) signature cocktails: Chu-Hi (shochu martini), Sake Cho-Hi and the Mora Negra (rum, muddled blackberry, mango, lime). Revel in these, because there isn't much else to hold you here, unless you want to ogle or grow deaf or both.

SushiSamba is not without stimulating promise. Its mission is to create a sassy hybrid of three distinctive culinary genres: Japanese, Brazilian and Peruvian. It's the distillation of a historical event, that point in time in the early 20th century when Japanese émigrés flooded South America—mostly Peru and Brazil—to exploit its fecund soils for coffee cultivation.

Think of the sexy counterpoints like Peruvian ceviche, fish flooded in lime juices until it is snow white, with onion and limo chilies staring down a plate of fresh sushi on gently packed sticky sweet rice with its concomitant wasabi and pickled ginger. You can anticipate this, but the notes will ultimately ring sexless.

Sushi is warm (the best is slightly cool on warm rice). The rice is loose and crumbles, even when picked up with fingers. Uni (sea urchin roe) is nearly flavorless. A lot can be said of the blackjack mackerel with its racy rich marine breath and near lacy texture, but the rest of the examples—hamachi, tuna, octopus—are inert. Thus, the namesake stumbles

What of the ceviche? Yellow tail sashimi ceviche is irregularly cut pieces of raw fish with shreds of daikon radish covered with tobiko sprinkles and dribbles of pepper oil. Hence, traditional ceviche is scrapped. Instead, SushiSamba deploys a trick, a fusion that attempts to bond the raw of sashimi with Peruvian enzymatic cooking of fish by an hours-long soak in citrus. To create a zone of intersection, the fish is kissed with lime for a few moments. This could work if meticulous Japanese technique was applied, but the dish is sloppy with sinuous, chewy fish clumsily cut and presented.

But this is the SushiSamba groove—an ersatz cultural cross-pollination that is more hollow exhibitionism than penetrating exploration. Behind the sushi bar is a plasma screen divided into four quadrants that flicker with scenes of Brazil's Carnival in perpetuity. It's all there: the floats, the outrageous costumes, the crowds, the reds, golds, and greens. Sometimes naked women flecked in glitter writhe into view, transforming the sushi bar into a gentleman's club buffet, or so some men there declared it. The bar is haloed with a dome from which glass ovals drop like inverted Dale Chihuly lily pads. Light glows underneath the bar's edge creating a delicious kneecap glow among the skirted while footrests below glisten with deep violet glitter.

The unisex bathroom is partitioned with wooden cubicle stalls equipped with private sinks (but no towels), and the vanity outside the stalls overlooks the bar through a glass sake case. It's a two-way view too, making it possible to detect possible hanky-panky overtures before things recede behind closed stall doors.

While playing voyeur, indulge in some brisk Japanese pickles or the edamame that rips a tiny page corner from Peruvian culture by combining the soy beans and sea salt with a little lime. Skewers jammed with swelling chicken livers, overcooked and dry, have a thick teriyaki sauce gloss. Peruvian corn, large waxy kernels, is chewy, nutty and desperately satisfying.

Samba rolls are as gaudy and colorful as the lusty Carnival motif. Neo Tokyo is sliced into thick segments strapped with rosy tuna strips with more tuna and "tempura flake" in the center. The top of each roll segment is covered with a yellow gob of spicy mayonnaise with a deep red dot of pepper sauce in the center giving you a bloody iris stare. It's a marvelous clash of textures and tastes with the fish largely surrendering to the mayo and pepper sauce and the tempura crunch in the shadows.

Crispy whole snapper thinks it better to look good than to taste good. It's arresting the way it leans on the plate with its head and tail curved in an upward reach. The fish has been deboned and the meat carved into nuggets that are coated, fried and reinstalled in the fish cavity. But the fish is dry and tasteless, spongy instead of crisp. The coconut rice and red curry sauce accompaniments make for puny remedies.

You might think things would improve with the churrasco, or the distinctive South American grilled meats. Slices of blackened rosy red hanger steak arranged into rows, a single piece of chorizo and a hunk of pork are presented on a plate for sharing with pepper oil and red and green chimichurri sauces for dipping. The beef is delicious, the chorizo passive and the pork parched. Sop up the chimichurris recklessly.

Oddly, this Japanese-Peruvian-Brazilian hybrid was dreamed up by Israeli Shimon Bokovza who has established Sambas in New York (two of them), Miami Beach, Chicago and Tel Aviv. But you don't really need to know any of this. Go for the crabs. Pray for an unfolding tryst behind the sake case. 13430 Dallas Parkway, No. 1165, 214-866-0214. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday and Monday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 11 a.m.-midnight Thursday and 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Friday and Saturday. $$$

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz