Restaurant Reviews

Holy Buzz

Meditate. Live purely. Be quiet. Do your work, with mastery. Buddha said that. Shinsei borrowed it.

This isn't surprising. All manner of restaurants and nightclubs have borrowed Buddhist trappings to dropkick hipness into the vibe, which there isn't very much of in Buddhism save for silence and the occasional "om." You won't find either of these at Shinsei—which means rebirth or new beginning—or at least you can't hear them if they're there. It's too loud. Too crowded. Too hard to hear your own unruly thoughts. Too frothing over with sweaty aspirations of various stripes: material, social, sensual.

Of all the worldly passions, lust is the most intense. Make proper use of it.

Which doesn't make Shinsei bad, especially when you make proper use of this vibe. Consider the nourishment. The bill of fare is listed simply on a small square of paper fastened to a board with a twig. Offerings are sparse, with a string of starters, a few entrees, a handful of sides and desserts that seem exotic in context: Grandma's homemade cherry tart; coconut tapioca with chocolate coffee fudge, a deliciously unctuous sweet served in a tall sundae glass.

Miso soup fills a huge bowl, the hefty scraps of seaweed, the mushroom slices, the clippings of scallion all flowing in a cloudy whorl that kicks steam up the nostrils when stirred. It's rich.

There are dangers too. Hot sake bottles, tall white and angular, are indistinguishable from the soy sauce dispensers posted on the tables. But who orders hot sake any more? Well, lots of us on chilly nights, when that hot yeasty burn feels much better than a sweetish iced chill, even if the finish on the hot isn't as complex or sophisticated.

A family is a place where minds come in contact with one another.

Shinsei ownership is a wives club of sorts; Lynae Fearing is wife of former Mansion (and current Ritz) rocker chef Dean Fearing, and Tracy Rathbun is wife of Abacus and Jasper's founding chef Kent Rathbun. Casey Thompson, a former Mansion sous chef who once had another life marketing jet fuel to NASA, is executive chef. Former Tei Tei Robata Bar and Teppo chef Shuji Sugawara, aka Elvis on account of his sideburns and slicked-back bouffant, commands the sushi bar. It is from here that most of Shinsei's pleasure is released.

Some of it is frightfully expensive. Uni (sea urchin gonads) rings at 11 bucks, and while it is firm, rich and broadly nutty, it certainly isn't the best we've sampled (Yutaka takes that cake). Yet everything else—octopus, yellowtail, flounder, snapper—is tender, silky and rich or some jumble of the three. And it's cool, like having a refreshing marine mist spritzed onto the tongue from a perfume nozzle. Spanish mackerel is lithe and delicate on the front of the palate before it detonates into a racy, almost steely finish, among the best of this species we've snared.

Shinsei is earthen brown, or at least it looks that way in the dimness. The walls are brown with paneled accents, banquettes are outfitted in brownish fabric, and walls hold what appear to be silk-screened art pieces. Fans are lined up behind the sushi production line, and a rough wood portal cages the entrance. Buddha sits at the top of the stairs, serving as sentry to the lounge, a sitting room where the twisted clatter and percussive chatter of the lower dining room is raked into placidity with plush seating, end tables and more art pieces.

Sensuous craving often gives rise to dissension, quarrelling and fighting, and so on.

Shinsei has a pan-Asian billing, and it weaves non-Japanese touches into food with grace. Grilled salmon with Mongolian barbecue sauce is an astonishing thing. A neatly cleaved square of meat rests on a banana leaf as a thick, sweetish sauce drools from its edges. Sesame seeds and parsley stick to the thick of it. Salmon is rich. It flakes easily, sliding into neat shingles on the thin layer of fat that bleeds through its fibers. Sweet is counteracted by smoke. Skewers of pineapple, water chestnuts and peppers are crossed in front of the fish.

But it's the miso-broiled black cod that drives this menu into low-key obsession. Cod is rich, with a slightly crisp veneer. Next to it is a small bowl of creamy corn sake soup—oddly beautiful. Corn and sake is an atypical pairing. It's a simple starch with a starch gone hard-core into ethanol dementia. Yet perhaps nothing fits the Shinsei mantra so perfectly: rebirth, or becoming, or some such babble.

But not everything clings to these high rungs. Vietnamese spring rolls, served with orange mayo, peanut and ginger soy sauces, were filled with dry chicken and vegetables wrapped in tough, chewy rice paper.

But it was just a distracting ripple. Fat, thick and richly delicious toasted garlic shrimp come with firm, separate ramen noodles sewn with vegetables in a wide white bowl.

And when Shinsei goes proletariat, it does so with glamorous vigor. Thai fried rice is a huge bowl of crisped sushi rice interspersed with specks of carrot, broccoli, mint and peas. A whole fried egg, with the yolk assuming the sunshine pose, is draped across the surface. Our server ravages the egg, rupturing the yolk and renting the white with a spoon, stirring it into the grains and vegetable fragments so that the yolk slowly oozes through the rice, making it even stickier and richer. It's hard to get enough of the stuff.

Kobe spare ribs fray into rich, lush meat fibers when forked and twisted with strands from the soba noodle bed underneath it.

For all of the faux meditative purity postures Shinsei assumes, it froths with sincere creativity. It's more world rock rumba than temple bell and a mantra. Take the surf and turf tataki, a long narrow plate with dueling rows of marine and terrestrial protein emanating from a tuft of vegetables. Tender slices of gently seared Kobe beef and darkly red tuna flecked with sesame seeds span single file from a heap in the center called Chinese broccoli salad. The salad swells with broccoli, carrot slivers and scallions with a fried onion crown. The salad is crisp and savory. The warm beef melts. But the tuna is distressingly off temperature—room temperature instead of cool or warm, making it indecisive—distressing for a fish that is near raw.

But such blemishes are almost irrelevant. Buddha once warned against frivolous talk and covetousness. But he also said that wherever in the world there are delightful and pleasurable things, there much craving may subside for a while. Shinsei has all of these things, which makes it a struggle of sorts, which is the whole point, isn't it?

7713 Inwood Road, Dallas. Open 5 p.m.-10:30 p.m Monday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. $$$

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz

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