Restaurant Reviews

The Real Thing

Everywhere there are the fakes, the counterfeits, the phonies. They make their way to our wrists (my Rolex impersonation suffered band failure, fell to the pavement and was crushed by a real Toyota Corolla), our wallets (keep an eye on those new Andrew Jacksons) and our lips (please don't bite the collagen).

Even our stuffed toys are frauds. A scandal recently erupted on the Web when a goof calling himself "thedrunkensailor" put his ex-wife's collection of Beanie Babies up for auction on eBay. He couldn't vouch for their authenticity. "Final Notice and Disclaimer: I know nothing about these stuffed Beanie Babies," said the drunk. "I offer no proof of anything...I don't think my ex-wife was in the Black Market Beanie Trade...but then again, I didn't know she was having an affair either!"

He assured bidders that the Beanie auction proceeds would go to Home Depot and beer. When bidding ended, a gal going by the name "glorybeeto" forked over $860 for the lot, noting that Steg the dinosaur, Humphrey the camel, Web the spider and Peanut the blue elephant were the prizes of the lot. But after she got a hold of the cache, "glorybeeto" complained via an eBay post that the rare Beanies were fakes. So she subsequently cut her losses by putting the remains up for auction with an opening bid of $9.99.

Turns out "thedrunkensailor" was a fake, too. Following an investigation by a columnist from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, it was revealed the drunk is happily married and that he and his wife found the box of toys when the South Florida couple packed to move. They posted the finding for amusement. And profit, it seems.

But gad, if you can't put your trust in a blue elephant, what can you trust in this era of GOP dominance? Certainly not that wad of green Silly Putty slipped next to a California roll and a pile of pickled ginger shavings. Common nomenclature for the putty is wasabi, but more often than not it is a fraud: ordinary horseradish stained with green food coloring.

Real wasabi, a relative of the mustard family, is rare, expensive and sublime. It is also one of the most challenging plants to cultivate on earth. Few geographical patches are suitable. Which is why it is highly valued in Japanese cuisine, and it is gaining widespread use in Western cuisine on account of its distinctive flavor.

The most fascinating thing about wasabi is its thermal dynamic. Unlike chili peppers, the wasabi scorch is transient, slipping into an earthy, alluring finish once the flame burns out.

[email protected]'s, a nightclub-cum-Japanese cuisinery, is a fake. (Manhattan in Arlington?) But it has real wasabi contained in a thing called "bet you'll cry roll." It comes with a challenge: If you can eat it without crying, chef Masa Nagashima, who once operated Sushi Masa and sliced fish at the defunct Sushi at the Stoneleigh, will cry instead and give you the $4.50 roll gratis.

It's not a safe bet. The roll is a simple melding of wasabi and cucumber with rice on the outside covered in sesame stubble. I put a piece in my mouth and smiled, waiting for Nagashima to dock its price from my check. Then a tear welled in the far corner of my left eye and rolled down my cheek. Nagashima laughed at my anguish.

At first blush, wasabi is delicate and disarming. It lies in wait. Then the afterburner hits. "Japanese Viagra," Nagashima says, chuckling. He says that after almost everything--uni, for instance. But this blip of sea urchin roe was pale instead of a hearty taupe, as if it had been drained of its nutty richness, a suspicion confirmed once it skidded across the tongue.

More slips paraded. Deep red tuna was stringy and chewy instead of silken. Unagi, strips of grilled and sauced freshwater eel, had an off taste. Masago (smelt roe) was bright orange, but it clumped like cheap caviar, perhaps indicating a debilitative freeze somewhere in its life cycle.

Other things captured the heart, though. Hamachi (young yellowtail tuna) was deliciously tender and cool with a hearty, sweet flavor. But the jewel in this marine gaggle was the mackerel. This wasn't the typical strip of strong fish edged in silvery skin that's an acquired taste for most. No, this was even more disconcerting. Those silvery shimmers were fake wasabi green.

But think of why this is so: The fish is marinated in brine and rice vinegar and bandaged in seaweed to broaden the flavors, making them more complex. The treatment sharpens the supple, moist meat, deploying acid and fortified marine layers to tame those shamelessly strong fish flavors. The salmon skin roll, with a few bonito flakes tossed in for brusque nuance and texture, was equally shameless in its fish richness.

Opened in 2001 in a space that was once the Polynesian restaurant V-Mana, Manhattan's is a large evening gymnasium right in the crook of Six Flags. It has a dance floor, glossy hard surfaces and other touches of cheese (lots of mirrors) so typical in suburban nocturnal nooks. Owner Wendell Chen calls it a multi-venue, and it was once stuffed with typical bar food before they had a sushi conversion. He has plans for Manhattan's II in Dallas or Addison.

The sushi bar, packed in the back end of the nightclub, is simple and unassuming. Behind the bar, there's a black-and-white mural featuring New York Yankees greats--Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio--swinging with DiMaggio's ex-wife Marilyn Monroe. Frank Sinatra is smirking off on the right flank.

The surface of the sushi bar is blond wood, heavily lacquered to a high gloss. But the ceiling tiles are heavily stained in that tea-brown hue that suggests neglected water leaks. Sometimes these blemishes can be endearing and evoke nostalgia for smoky Dallas beer hubs. But it's more serious in a sushi restaurant, where freshness and cleanliness can mean the difference between sensual pleasure and panicked convulsions.

But Manhattan's has more than just raw fish. It has a slate of bento boxes, bulging with seafood and teriyakis of virtually every marquee protein save tofu T-bones. Chicken teriyaki had compartments for juicy grilled chicken, savory egg omelette squares, a serviceable California roll and a veggie medley of broccoli, onion and mushrooms.

Tempura udon, with a single soggy tempura shrimp, slightly overcooked noodles, mushroom and a raw egg spreading a gooey pool across a piping-hot broth, had surprisingly rich, engaging flavors.

Appetizers were hit-and-miss. Soft-shell crab, slices of fried crab over slivers of slightly wilted lettuce, was rocked with an odd petrol taste. But conch salad was a span of brilliance. Pieces of firm conch were crowded with segments of asparagus stalk, daikon radish sprouts and Japanese beets in a sharp vinaigrette.

With a few tweaks, [email protected]'s could be a swell market to score raw fish--among other things. Just be wary of any blue elephants that might stampede across the dance floor.

2501 E. Lamar Blvd., Suite B, Arlington, 817-652-1435. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday. Open for dinner 5:30 p.m.-10:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5:30 p.m.-2 a.m. Friday & Saturday. $$-$$$

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz

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