Closing in on 8 p.m. on a Friday and Nori is just about empty. A couple early diners abandoned the place about an hour before, and the lone guy in the bar looks ready to leave too. Waitresses laze in a circle, bored into listlessness.
Funny thing, though: the cooking—or lack of cooking—doesn't justify such desolation. Nigiri portions of salmon, for instance, show stark veins of fat rippling across pastel orange flesh. The flavor is clean and the texture like down, riding on a thin beam of wasabi and decent, sticky rice lacking only the faint vinegar tang one should expect from sushi. Croquettes made of creamed corn appear so uniform in shape and color, you'd swear they were commercially produced. But firm kernels in the filling pop, in contrast to their rich, custard-like surroundings. Unlike so many spicy tuna rolls, Nori's actually reek with peppery heat, flowing over an initial impression of fish and cucumber.
But during a lunchtime visit several days earlier (dining in an equally vacant room), things didn't go quite so swimmingly. Some B-team sushi chef forgot that necessary streak of wasabi. Their surf clam had aged seriously once outside the water, developing an ashen, gray-brown pallor far deeper than the natural white to beige shades. Its flavor, too, had crested and fallen, turning into a morose and chewy thing—one that caused a little tremor of doubt as you plucked it from the plate. Although the flying fish roe exploded cleanly, the structure idled halfway between difficult to handle and impossible to down in one go.
So it's a tale of two sushis, kinda.
Nori is cast into a difficult spot, between Humperdink's, the pseudo-sports bar, and a nightclub called Che's, lodged in the commuter triangle between Stemmons and Walton Walker. Most people cross through the area on the way to lunch (or to one of the strip clubs flanking the area). Apart from Pappas Bros. and Red River, this is terrain dominated by chain restaurants—not the sort of place one heads to when in search of fresh fish...although there's something to be said for accessibility. Still, the location somehow resembles a real-life representation of that old Sesame Street game: One of these things is not like the others.
"We feel our sushi is second to none," owner Mark Sorelle says. "We don't look at the chains as being competition in our niche market." Clearly that's the case, given the attendance I witnessed. But they may want to back down a step from that "second to none" bit.
Don't get me wrong. The restaurant generally holds its own, even surpassing many sushi joints in quality at times. Little things often jump out and surprise you, such as the lettuce filling out their spider roll. Instead of limp and flavorless color, strips of leaf actually provide a noticeable crunch and splash of character to an otherwise cowed presentation, almost overawed by kabayaki sauce, which seems in this iteration almost like molasses.
Speaking of eel, their take on nigiri from this serpentine beast is downright beautiful: earthy, smoky and nutty in flavor, with each stroking the palate in turns, rising out of the same kabayaki—this time apparently tamer, reaching both sweet and acrid notes. In combination, the chef creates depth and wealth and power. Yet perhaps the most delightful element in all this is the fish's gentle, oozing texture. Smoked salmon finds tart, smoky layers fluttering over rice revealing, for the first time, hints of vinegar. It's another pleasing example of what this restaurant can achieve.
Then there's super white tuna, a soft slab of porcelain-colored meat, fresh and silky. Of course, no such fish exists in the wild. Most of us have tasted it as either "cod" or "king tuna," or under the more heroic "super white" name, but it really goes by escolar.
The place has been open six or seven months. Sorelle confirms in an e-mail that his staff just recently got up to review-worthy standards. Pulling up to Nori for the first time, I didn't expect much given the location. I mean, the Pappas kingdom's lame barbecue effort sits across the way and 'Dinks overshadows the lot. I was rewarded, on that trip, with second-string attempts. The next time, the thought of long-dead surf clam caused some anxiety as I approached. But they hit me with a display of talent, starting with gyoza. The popular Asian dumplings are seared lightly on one side, creating a tacky, sometimes crispy and mellow shell over a nicely pungent filling. Their Louisiana roll features tempura-style crawfish in a warm and rich environment, supported by a current of tempered spice.
None of this guarantees crowds, however—despite some welcome marketing tricks by the ownership. On Fridays they offer a "buy two, get one free" special, which in our case encouraged another round of maki. They also dropped some of the call spirits to three bucks, but we didn't see any of that action.
Hell, they even serve sushi until 2 a.m.
So they're trying desperately. Sorelle seems convinced his kitchen and the quality of their fish stand up to any other place in the city. Honestly, I'm never out during the midnight hour, so the restaurant could be pulling solid late-night numbers. Visits during what could be called "normal" dining times suggest that guests prefer location or ambience over the possibility of great sushi.
Really, they have moments when the second-to-none claims sound right on. And all in all, it's not a bad place compared with other joints in Dallas, when Sorelle's starting lineup works the mats. Oh, even on a good night, the basic tuna maki falls into the commonplace ranks. But their Westernized specialty rolls and several of the nigiri options often resonate. The menu also includes teriyaki, tempura, grilled items, baked green mussels and udon.
So, the wide open seating doesn't matter. Empty or full is no way to judge an establishment.Nori Sushi Bar and Grill 2212 W. Northwest Highway, 972-993-7888. Open 11 a.m.-2 a.m. daily. $$-$$$