My friend, Song Wii, owns Sushi Star Restaurant in Preston Hollow. I worry about him. Having watched my father work 12 hours a day behind a hot wok for years, I understand too well the pressures of running a restaurant. Unless impending bankruptcy or a natural disaster forces a restaurant to shut down, it's difficult to walk away once all the saved money and the grueling time have been invested. However, a year ago, Song took a much needed break from the toll and left the restaurant in the capable hands of family members. He ventured down to Austin for some respite and gained a couple of much needed pounds on his already lithe body. Upon hearing that he was back in town to help out at his restaurant for the next few months, I decided to pay him a visit.
Sushi Star is an anomaly. It's a neighborhood restaurant, but the neighborhood it's in is full of some of the most affluent people in Dallas. The restaurant is aesthetically humble, but because of its location, the menu and the corresponding prices are ambitious. Like a neighborhood restaurant, Sushi Star exudes a laid-back sleepiness that veils the labor, love and aches of the blue-collar workers responsible for appearances. Throughout the course of our long and bounteous dinner, Song regaled me with stories of notable clientele (including a certain German basketball player's name on the restaurant phone's caller ID), as we commiserated over our love/hate relationships with the business of feeding people.
I've long been curious about the Korean or Vietnamese-owned sushi restaurant. Outside of sushi and Chinese buffets, there is a lack of authentic Asian restaurants inside Dallas city lines. One has to wonder if it's because of Dallas' insatiable appetite for sushi, or rather, because of ethnic groups' reluctance to step outside of the tried-and-true. Without wanting to offend Song, who happens to be Korean, I posed the question to him. His response made me feel a tad foolish for asking. "Well, Korea is a peninsula, after all," he replied, "It's not as if we are foreign to the concept of raw fish."
In actuality, there is a huge representation of Korean dishes on the menu. This is because Sushi Star is a family affair. Song co-owns the restaurant with his father, and his aunt is the executive chef. All together, there is a combined total of twenty-five years of restaurant business experience behind Sushi Star. Despite the decades of experience, sushi is a relatively new venture for the family. With a history spanning from learning the craft of hand made noodles in Korea to having owned several Chinese restaurants throughout Texas, the elder Wii was asked to consult on the opening of Little Katana on Travis Street. His time as a consultant sparked an interest, and he asked his son to come aboard as a partner.
As simple as the story sounds, Song assures me that the past three years have been a labor of love. A third partner was bought out of the business, and like many restaurants, a revolving door of staff played a burdensome part in the restaurant's struggles. Throughout the turmoil, the locals have remained loyal, as Sushi Star attracts a variety of diners, from families to both current and former professional athletes. During our late dinner on a quiet evening, it's easy to see the appeal to both sets of diners, famous and non. The restaurant is low-key and unobtrusive, yet the food is flavorful and meticulous. As I discovered over a bowl of yukejang, everything, including soups, is made to order at Sushi Star. After insisting that I try the restaurant's version of the Korean spicy beef soup, Song arrived back at the table with two bowls of aromatic and scarlet-hued broth, specially prepared by his mother. For a soup that had been made from scratch just 15 minutes before, the flavors were surprisingly layered. While the soup is traditionally made with beef, the restaurant offers both beef and a chicken variation. We sampled the shredded chicken version, complimented with a bowl of sesame rice. It was a piece of Korean soul food in the least likely of places.
While eating our way through both the Korean and Japanese sections of the menu, I asked Song what were the more popular dishes at the restaurant. In all honesty, I was digging to see if the Korean cuisine was as embraced as the sushi. Song revealed that the kalbi, or Korean short ribs, is among the most popular dishes at Sushi Star. That's not surprising to anyone who's ever had kalbi. My request for the decadent short ribs' marinade was denied. Song ordered the meat as a part of the restaurant's much-ordered Appetizer Sampler plate, which includes the kalbi, calamari, chicken yakitori, and fried potstickers. Besides the sweet, savory, and fatty kalbi, the highlight of the Appetizer Sampler was the crispy fried calamari, or more specifically, tempura calamari. The calamari was an early indication of all tempura to come at Sushi Star -- incredible. Light, yet slightly chewy, the squid did not suffer the rubbery and dense fate of other calamari. I wished only that instead of the chicken, there were more of the delightful squid and short ribs. However, as I soon discovered, it was probably best that I didn't fill up on the appetizers.
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It is out of habit that I order a noodle soup wherever one is offered. Knowing this, Song presented me with a shrimp tempura Udon. Since Udon noodle soup basically is the same base no matter where it is ordered, the real test was reserved for the shrimp. Having never been a fan of soggy tempura, I was happy to see that the restaurant keeps the tempura on a plate separate from the noodle soup. I soon understood why they did this. The shining "star" of Sushi Star is, arguably, the tempura. Like the calamari before it, the crust on the shrimp was light and airy, yet remained intact when biting through it. For something that was so delicate, I was surprised that it didn't completely fall apart upon first bite. Only after insistent badgering did I become privy to the restaurant's tempura batter secret, which shall remain a secret.
An element of the restaurant not so proprietary, however, is the sushi. With only a few major sushi distributors in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, picking which distributor to use was an exercise in trial and error. As a small family restaurant, having to compete with local sushi chains and larger restaurants played a significant role in securing the best quality fish, as well. Calling dibs on the best catches wasn't always easy. Luckily, Sushi Star eventually found a reliable source for consistently good fish, as I was fortunate enough to discover on the day of my visit. That very day, a delivery of uni and red snapper had arrived in the kitchen, ready for my consumption. While inhaling the velvety uni and lean snapper, it occurred to me that I had never thought to ask a sushi restaurant what was the most recent import of the day. Over pondering my egregious error, a sushi roll arrived at our table, compliments of the improvisational skills of the executive chef, aka Song's aunt. With strips of cool, thinly sliced cucumber encasing generous chunks of raw tuna and salmon, the appropriately named Summer Roll was a perfect send-off into the July evening.
While I realize that not everyone is lucky enough to experience the same dining circumstances in which I partake at Sushi Star, the atmosphere and the food are all the same. Despite the expensive ZIP code, at its heart, Sushi Star is a neighborhood restaurant built on a family dedicated, through their years of experience, to feeding people well. Having come from the same background, it's not a task I envy. Survival in the restaurant business takes a certain devotion, and frankly, a degree of insanity, that is beyond a mere love of food. Song hopes to open a new restaurant in the Austin area in the near future. But as he puts it, "This time around, I've learned all the mistakes to avoid." I wish him luck, as I wish all families who are in this back-breaking business luck. And I thank them all for the home-cooked meals.
Sushi Star 5956 Royal Lane 214-692-8989