Sides are usually buried on some lower quadrant of the menu, only noticed after every appetizer has been fawned over and every entrée debated. Only when a particularly hungry member of a dining party asks, "Do you think we should get something for the table to share?" do eyes turn to the lesser dishes to balance out the steaks and egg rolls that were ordered with infinitely more enthusiasm.
Which is why it's always surprising when a chef puts a seemingly disproportionate amount of thought into developing a menu's C-string offerings. Sitting at the bar one night at Shinsei, already full, I wanted to evaluate at least one more dish before moving on to dessert. I went with the broccolini on the bartender's recommendation, even though it seemed like a strange thing to order on its own.
But this vegetable dish wasn't a forgotten side. The broccolini was sourced from a small farm outside of Austin, its stalks shaved thin on a mandolin, twirled around a chopstick and plunged into ice water. The florets were blanched in an elixir of salted butter water, and then flash-cooked on a plancha until some of the tiny buds were black as ink, while the rest remained forest green. Then the stalks reappeared, now curled ribbons of mint green, with dehydrated orange slices, a citrus sauce, and because the plate needed some texture, barley cooked in miso. This was no side dish, but a centerpiece capable of standing on its own. And it turns out its location on the menu was all a misunderstanding.
Shinsei has been providing pan-Asian flavors to the Lovers Lane set for nine years, under the ownership of Lynae Fearing, former wife of Dean Fearing, and Tracy Rathbun, who is married to star local chef Kent Rathbun. Earlier this year, they called up a new chef, Jeramie Robison, who has been slowly dissecting and reassembling the Shinsei menu in his own vision.
Robison hails most recently from Austin, where he studied under Tyson Cole at ever-growing Uchi, and where he most likely met a local broccolini farmer or two. As the Uchi dynasty expanded, opening restaurants in Austin, Houston and soon here in Dallas, Robison worked with chefs destined for those new outposts and absorbed many of the techniques he's brought to his new kitchen in Dallas.
The rollout has been slow, though. Rather than overhaul Shinsei's entire menu in one shot, he's been offering dishes piecemeal, slowly acclimating diners who have patronized Shinsei for nearly 10 years. According to Robison and a few of the staff I talked with in the dining room, he's gradually winning them over, and the result will eventually be a completely new menu.
It started with grilled oysters, shucked to order and topped with chili butter awakened with lime juice. A gentle sprinkle of puffed rice adds texture, and just like that, a dish with Louisiana roots gets adapted for a Dallas audience using flavors from Asia. You'll see them shuttled through the dining room on small plates in twos and threes, vanishing seconds after they descend upon their assigned tables.
Then came the beef cheek, cooked until it almost falls apart, paired with cauliflower shaved into translucent cross sections. The first night the dish was offered, the kitchen only fired a few orders as the dining room tepidly pecked at the novel cut. Now the cheek is one of the most popular new dishes.
Robison continues to work his way through the new dishes as he prepares for a relaunch this May. The new menu won't be organized into traditional apps, entrées and desserts, but will focus on functional food groups like meats and vegetables (hey broccolini!) instead. The vibrant sushi bar that dazzles customers with everything from spicy tuna rolls to Japanese and Spanish mackerel remains untouched. There's Elvis the sushi chef behind the bar, his perfectly coiffed pompadour standing proud as it has since the restaurant first opened its ornate doors. While Shinsei isn't often mentioned among the city's most popular sushi restaurants, you can get some solid nigiri here. I tasted mackerel, tuna, flounder, sweet shrimp and others that were fresh and vibrant, all of them pressed into properly seasoned rice. Those who dampen their own curiosity with another order of California rolls are missing some competent sushi.
The most exciting part of the transition, though, is what lies ahead. Previously, cooks at Shinsei worked from a moderately cautious restaurant canon -- the straight-out-of-cooking-school techniques that most restaurants bore their diners with. Now, they're piercing oranges no fewer than 60 times each with a skewer, stewing the riddled fruit in sugar water and puréeing what remains into a vibrant sauce for green vegetables. As the skill of the kitchen staff continues to expand and strengthen, so will Robison's ability to orchestrate a menu with increasing complexity. Shinsei is poised to become something more than a neighborhood restaurant that serves lettuce wraps.
There are changes to the upstairs dining room, too, which will host a happy hour inspired by the Japanese tradition of the izakaya. Order a beer here during the proper hour and you'll get a snack gratis. One plate might present shrimp cooked in dill butter with pickled daikon, while the next offers crunchy chicharrón, or chicken skin. You won't know what's coming, or even be able to place requests -- it will be like receiving a small gift from the kitchen.
But as impressive as all these changes may be, we all get snagged on our past as we attempt to move forward. Like that piece of furniture you've kept across three moves even though it never fits anywhere, certain dishes on Shinsei's menu have started to look old and clunky compared to their modern counterparts.
Enter into evidence the lobster tacos, described on the menu as a "tribute to big D." Of course the tacos are delicious -- any competently cooked dish featuring flour tortillas and melted cheese will be -- but the flavor pairing is hardly a suitable backdrop for lobster in an Asian restaurant, and this taco eats more like a limp quesadilla. At $17, the dish is disturbingly out of place next to Robison's more elegant cooking.
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One night at the sushi bar, after warming up with some nigiri and grilled oysters, I ordered the steamed halibut. The fish was cooked perfectly, just starting to flake but not overdone, and perched on a block of pressed rice that had been seared to a crisp. The raft floated in a sea of yellow curry that was light and almost frothy, and as brightly colored as Meyer lemon skins. It's a dish that makes those tacos, and some other plates that linger from the old days, look pretty stale. To make the most of Robison's tenure, these dishes need an update, or, better yet, should be thrown back into the sea to be devoured by time. That's how Robison will realize Shinsei's full potential.
Newly opened restaurants take most of the credit for sculpting changes to any city's dining scene, and as expected they attract the most attention from the local foodarazzi. But while the restaurant cognoscenti clamor for tables at the soon-to-come Uchi downtown, diners along Lovers Lane will have been experiencing a cross section of the Austin restaurant temple for months now. On rare occasions, an old horse rises up to reinvent itself, and in this way Shinsei is poised to become a hidden gem.
Shinsei 7713 Inwood Road, 214-352-0005, www.shinseirestaurant.com, Open 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday, 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday. $$$$
Poached halibut $32 Beef cheek $26 Citrus broccolini $12 Quail $18 Chocolate cake $7