Sometime around second grade, with kiddie fat starting to fade into just awkward kid, I got my first taste of the Orient. My dad worked for a Japanese company. I had pen pals in Nagano. I got my first kimono, and I was working on mastering the chopsticks.
Our family would take trips to Richardson to two beloved, authentic, family-run Japanese restaurants. The waitresses took a liking to my sister and me, and steadily, we ventured into the more adventurous cuisine for two kids from Garland. From teriyaki and tempura to simple maki sushi (rolls) and onto nigiri sushi (the iconic slices of fish on rice) and sashimi (just the slices). With soups, dumplings and edamame adding warmth here and there, our family embarked on a lifelong relationship with Japanese cuisine.
Pork gyoza $6
Lobster spring rolls $9.75
Vegetable tempura $6.75
Miso hot! soup $6.50
Beef bowl $8.75
Viva Las Vegas roll $12.75
Yellow monkey roll $10
Pacific roll $9.75
So, I'm a tough sell when it comes to Japanese restaurants. I require care, personality and interaction. I want a good cut of fish. I need perfect rice. I don't mind stylistic tweaks or deviation from tradition, but I like respect for it. Japanese food, especially sushi, is nothing if not an act in graceful seduction, albeit executed with a restrained hand.
Japanese cuisine isn't—or shouldn't be—awkward. But it is at The Shops at Legacy's RA Sushi.
Now, I'll be honest, I did visit RA (pronounced "raw" for the uninitiated) with an ex-boyfriend, and perhaps there was some uncomfortable talk of who-wronged-whom and maybe a little who-deserved-what, but it lasted all of two minutes. I didn't expect RA to go toe-to-toe, discomfiting us and one-upping us on weird.
First off, after getting lost (don't Google "RA Sushi Plano" and click from the Google page on "get directions." It's the wrong listing, and you'll end up in front of someone's house), we called to get help and were told to go to The Shops at Legacy. Fair enough. Then we got to the shops. Don't expect to see RA from the street. It's on a back alley-like lane with construction and opposite the more developed area of the shopping center. So we called again. Maybe the football fans in the bar irritated the hostess, but she definitely seemed irritated that I was unfamiliar with the restaurant's location. Worse yet, she could tell me to look for Williams-Sonoma and venture behind it but could not tell me which side of the road or direction to go. We persevered, however, and after a jaunt around the center we located the unlit Williams-Sonoma and, an alley and pub later, RA.
Amidst shrill shouts from sports fans in "Bar Bloke" (as my friend, in from New Zealand, would call the bar area), we ordered based on our server's enthusiastic suggestions.
Our pork gyoza, or dumplings, were crisp and not too greasy—basic starters that, though average in flavor, ended up being the highlight of the meal. The "top-selling" lobster spring rolls were, in contrast, deplorable. Fried wonton wrappers were stuffed with lobster, garlic mango sauce, cream cheese and peppers (you read that correctly). The flavor profile was bizarre and fairly nauseating. Lobsters have every reason to be offended by what I can only assume is a misguided effort to make crustaceans "exotic" and those oh-so-scary egg rolls accessible. Some simple Napa cabbage would've served any brand of claw meat better.
The sushi also disappointed. The yellow monkey roll consisted of roasted red peppers, marinated artichokes and cream cheese in a rice and seaweed wrap, topped with slices of mango (again with the mango), cashews and a kiwi-wasabi-mango drizzle. No fish. Right.
The tunacado presented nicely with slices of avocado and seared ahi sprinkled with black sesame seeds and rice cracker pellets. The creamy ponzu (a term used throughout the menu to describe vastly differing sauces, by the way) was exceptionally strong and almost overpowered the fish. Though nicely sliced, it just wasn't the touchdown everyone at the bar was screaming for. It was closer to right but still awkward. Thank goodness for a good dose of sake.
As much as I didn't want to return to RA Sushi for a second visit, duty called. I enlisted a trusted sushi fan and once again trekked to Plano. I'm glad I did because thanks to a helpful and friendly green-tressed server, I discovered the purpose of RA.
After a late night out, we arrived mid-afternoon, shades-on. We needed sustenance and a lot of it to battle the previous night's demons. We shared what seemed to be a quarter of the menu and endured some stares because of the number of plates on our table, but, shit, we didn't care.
It was when we were pondering rolls that our waitress pointed to a section of the sushi menu and said, "These are the things you can get anywhere else." And regarding the "special rolls" she said, "These are the ones you can only get here." Of the special rolls, those containing fish were limited to kani kama (imitation crab), king crab, scallop, lobster, shrimp, smoked salmon and calamari—all of which is cooked—plus tuna and salmon (the least frightening of the raws to the sushi virgin). Some of them don't even contain fish, including the beef tataki, which our server referred to as "more of a, um, well, Texas roll."
Aha! I had been puzzled by all the awards the chain has received in other cities, but now it was clear—RA is a place for people who don't want good, authentic sushi but who want to be seen eating "sushi." Because sushi is commonplace now, it's uncool not to eat it. RA has tapped into this fact and targeted their market. And this accounts for the awkward pairings, the excess of mango and other trendy ingredients, and the widescreens that seem to account for more space than the sushi bar.
With the proper mindset now adopted, we dove headfirst into spicy miso. Sriracha, bok choy and shrimp made for some interesting additions to the classic broth, and that's not a bad thing. The soup was a tasty base for our meal, but the large hot pot makes sharing necessary if it's not ordered as an entrée.
Beef bowl and tempura were easy choices. Hard to eff up, the two dishes are legendary hangover remedies. Beef gristle aside, the dishes weren't offensive, and my dining buddy and I both enjoyed them, proving, at least, the occasional nod to tradition pays off.
The Viva Las Vegas roll was just OK; the crispy lotus root on top was a nice touch, but the cream cheese proved too rich along with kani kama, tempura batter, spicy tuna and crab mix. Two pieces of the roll were very filling.
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The Pacific roll was so bad we set it aside after one bite. Though gorgeous in presentation (bright beet tempura flakes on top of yellow mango—yes, mango—made for a stunning contrast), the albacore-jalapeño-cucumber-avocado-mango-nut mix ended up slightly chewed and then pushed into the cheek until I could get a sip to wash it down. It just didn't work. For such a beautiful dish, the flavor was, well, gawky.
Of my time at RA Sushi, the dishes that succeeded were the ones that stayed true to proven flavor profiles. Gyoza, beef bowl, tempura and nigiri sushi didn't pander to nouveau or faux riche looking for nouveau or faux culture. Dishes that did were silly and off-putting, experiments in mixing popular ingredients gone awry.
As we were leaving, I noticed one of the RA T-shirts with a sexed-up double entendre on a buser (naturally, you can buy them, RA thongs and other merch at the restaurants). And that's when I realized where RA really fucked up: They threw out all the grace, seduction and passion of Japanese cuisine and culture and opted for the overt, the easy access, the embarrassing. How awkward.
7501 Lone Star Drive, Plano, 469-467-7400. Open 11 a.m-midnight daily. $$-$$$