Did you guess a neighborhood sushi restaurant in Cowtown? Maybe a popular Japanese destination owned by a native of Taiwan who received her culinary training in France? Hui Chuan, owner of the eponymous sushi, sake and tapas spot, added the latter, trendier heading to excuse a few global menu twists.
The Spanish term for small plates has become an integral part of American culinary life. Every restaurant of whatever nationality, it seems, prefers the tapas label to more prosaic terms (appetizer, for instance). In this case it refers to anomalies such as artichoke hearts with escargot inserted amongst more traditional Asian plates--edamame, tempura, gaoza and squid salad. Gaoza, often translated as gyoza, is a Chinese import popular in Japan. The serving consists of four dumplings stuffed with mildly seasoned pork and a mix of vegetables. Many restaurants pan-fry the pieces, leaving a whitish, sticky shell darkened on two sides. Hui Chuan's kitchen opts for a deep-frying method, which renders crisp golden-brown dumplings pleasant to palates reared on things pulled from the Fry Daddy. Green mussels are a messy proposition for chopstick novices but present an interesting medley of flavors. Good, musty shellfish emerge from a cloud of spice mayonnaise, with the sharp dart of chopped green onion pouncing at the end.
Those who still fear the mysteries of raw seafood will find a lot to like on the tapas menu. Plenty of things baked and grilled, a few salads and some familiar offerings. The aforementioned items are pleasing, if not outstanding selections. Shrimp shumai, though, is outstanding: beautiful little steamed dumplings sitting like a row of tiny ornamental fezzes topped with a bright and spicy tassel. That little red streak of sauce counters the sweetness of ground shrimp, alerting both ends of the palate's scale. A piercing dip of soy and vinegar smacks other notes, so the entire bite--sweet, hot, salty and tangy--becomes an orchestra in a small package. On the other hand, an order of seafood tempura fell well short of expectations on one visit. Those globetrotters of olden days, the Portuguese, introduced the light batter to Japan way back when the Iberian vacation spot harbored dreams of world conquest, and over the interim even line cooks at chain restaurants have mastered the stuff. It should emerge as a crisp and airy golden thing of beauty encasing fish and vegetables that maintain their fresh taste, but here the delicate crust was pale and lost to moisture, the cucumbers had succumbed to mushiness, and the seafood was indistinct underneath the mass of gooey dough.
Chuan has suffered through mishaps before, though, and recovered. She shuttered a previous downtown establishment when a lack of business discipline and excess of space forced her into debt. The collapse cost Chuan a marriage and a lot of money. Now she's determined to keep things small and cozy.
This is not a comfortable space. A narrow passage cuts between downsized two-tops, a couple of larger tables and the sushi bar. There is one elegant tatami room curtained off for groups, but the smoking section is merely a couple of small tables stuck along the back passage.
Small rooms offer distinct advantages, however. Crowds attract those seeking noisy, elbow-bumping energy. Service is reasonable and friendly. Not a place to find snap-to-it professionalism but something more quaint and casual. During our second visit the owner herself relaxed at one of the smoking tables, sharing stories gleaned from classes she runs (telling a gentleman learning to wield chopsticks to practice at home with his wife on a certain button-sized appendage, adding "if she screams, you're doing it right").
There's a sense of fun about the place.
Without formal pretensions, the tiny restaurant manages to turn out great sushi and sashimi. Tuna is a deep, rich red with a delicate texture that holds sway for a moment before dissolving away. It's mild in flavor, although the sushi version rides atop a streak of wasabi, adding spark without denting the overall richness. A tangle of shredded daikon supports a fan of thinly sliced cucumber on sashimi plates, something to appreciate as you experience yellowtail's mellow, fishy taste or the fatty burst of fresh seabass. The rice portion broke apart on several examples of nigiri, perhaps indicating hasty preparation on a busy weekend evening. Construction of gunkan, the oval cups of rice and seaweed usually supporting various roe, seemed clumsy at times. Slug-like lumps of uni--sea urchin to the uninitiated--spilled artlessly beyond the supporting rim, and flying fish eggs held on in haphazard fashion. Indeed, construction is one of the few areas where Hui Chuan falters. The restaurant encourages guests to design their own rolls (or at least suggest ingredients). Some of the more successful of these amateur concoctions end up on the menu under cute headings like "rock and roll," "crazy roll," "Melisa roll" and so on. A double trio of seafood and vegetables--tuna, shrimp and crab balanced by cucumber, avocado and yamagobo--known as the jazz roll was bloated and nearly unmanageable on one visit, thanks to an excessive layer of rice. Downing pieces in two bites destroys the intended interplay of ingredients.
Despite little flaws, flavors are consistently fresh and delicate, textures intricate. Hui Chuan's take on miso soup approaches brilliance. At once earthy and nutty, the slightly viscous broth pricks the palate with salt at the start. But that dissipates quickly, allowing other sensations to introduce themselves, mix and mingle. Kitchen staff opt to float mushroom halves in the bowl rather than the more common empty calories of tofu, providing a similar feel with more rusticity. The dragon roll squeezes albacore, eel, avocado and cream cheese into a wrap covered by an enticing blend of jalapeno and flying fish roe. Yep, little green fish eggs so cunningly subtle, spicy and vegetal that we discussed ordering a take-home tin to spread them on toast points. They save a roll otherwise diminished by an unpleasant mushy mouth feel caused by a combination of softened bagel spread and avocado. Eventually the tangy cream cheese dominates the palate as well. Small, spindly softshell crab legs jut from the aptly named spider roll. It's creepy to look at, but the bits of fried crab add crunch and a natural sweetness to what may be the restaurant's best roll. There's an alluring balance behind the skittering creature's crusty remains.
For dessert, the restaurant offers a variety of ice creams, the more intriguing of which are those packed inside a shell of mochi--or sticky rice--pounded into a gummi-bear consistency. They also stock something close to 30 different sakes in various price ranges.
Those accustomed to showy starched whites of more formal sushi destinations may have some difficulty adjusting to the laid-back appeal of Hui Chuan. Sushi chefs here don dull gray tees bearing the restaurant's logo. Glass counter space showcases lots of plastic wrap and Tupperware.
Hui Chuan prefers to spend her money on fresh ingredients, though. And when it comes to raw fish, that's what really matters. 6100 Camp Bowie Blvd., Suite 12, Fort Worth, 817-989-8886. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; open for dinner 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday; open noon to 11 p.m. Saturday and 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday. $$-$$$