When Uchi's Dallas outpost opened in June, little was known about the sister restaurant that would come to occupy the second floor. Diners knew what to expect from Uchi Dallas. Its reputation, style and menu were all extensions of Uchi Austin and Uchi Houston, but less was known about the mysterious restaurant at the top of the stairs. That mystery was unveiled in February when Top Knot opened its doors.
If the restaurants can be considered siblings, Top Knot is undoubtedly the younger. Whereas Uchi's menu is settled in its focus on modern Japanese cuisine, Top Knot darts from Japan to Southeast Asia to Latin America, taking flavor souvenirs as it goes. While well-heeled women valet their luxury sedans in front of Uchi, women 20 years their junior climb the staircase to Top Knot. Uchi's interior melts with neutral sophistication, while Top Knot's appeals eagerly to the eyes.
Top Knot's atmosphere is the result of meticulous planning — an engineered bid to Dallas' ever-burning desire for something cool. Color abounds, from the wall of red tiles that conjures urban images of the subway to a wall full of rudimentary designs in every color of the rainbow, an overlay of paper cutouts and yarn to create something straight out of an Anthropologie store window. Plants hang from the ceiling by neon macramé holders, and the bar is lit by the glow of small, mismatched lamps. Hell, the whole restaurant looks like an Anthropologie ad, with diners filling the roles of models. Beautiful 20- and 30-somethings sip and eat their way through a menu that requires a dose of disposable income and an affinity for exotic food that has one foot firmly planted on American soil.
Top Knot delivers dishes that, while sourced and inspired from other parts of the globe, at once connect you to and remove you from the dish's origin. The pork katsu ($17) — billed as a "fun dish; you just play with it" by the server — features breaded and fried cutlet served alongside two sauces, one tangy, sweet and savory, the other a creamy, pale yellow mustard. The sauces spared the cutlet from what, in their absence, would be a flat, albeit pleasantly chewy existence. Dressed in a creamy swirl of acid-forward dressing, the accompanying cabbage and apple slaw was addictively punchy and generously flavored with sesame oil – the highlight of this dish.
The katsu is the only non-seafood-centric option from the meats and fish portion of the menu, save for the Miyazaki A5 Striploin ($60). While some of these dishes could serve as stand-alone meals (the katsu, for example), others should be ordered as part of a succession of dishes. The dayboat scallops ($19), which featured an off-menu ingredient list of fresh corn and baby lettuce, was one such small plate. The scallops were fresh and succulent, their melting texture cut by the corn's sweetness and bites of bitter, gently wilted lettuce.
An order of Thai-style shellfish was prepared “Carta Fata” style — the head-on prawns and mussels are cooked in a patented bag which is then snipped, table-side, into a serving bowl. While less theatrically impressive than, say, a duck press, this technique allowed the shellfish to cook evenly while marrying it in a tom kha-inspired sauce.
The show-stopper, though, has to be the whole fried fish. It is a stunning thing to behold: a whole fish, deep fried until the skin becomes crispy. The fish is slit along the backbone to reveal two beautiful fillets that can be pried easily from the skin with chopsticks. Nested between the fillets is a mound of green papaya salad, which provides bursts of fresh, tangy flavor between bites of the tender white fish.
To accompany your main dish (or dishes, as the need may be) there are buns, crudos, hand rolls and a smattering of vegetable dishes. Start with an order of hamachi crudo ($13). Perfect cubes of hamachi (young yellowtail) are surrounded by a kiwi-green pool of acidic cucumber juice. Mint leaves, red grape halves, toasted sesame seeds and crushed hazelnut adorn the buttery fish. A spoonful of juice and all of the preceding elements create a bite that masterfully juxtaposes flavor and texture.
A hand roll ($8-$9.50) or two makes for a natural chaser to the crudo. They come in four varieties: spicy crab, veggie banh mi, yellowtail and pickled shrimp. The latter utilizes a strip of chicharrón, which gives the roll a satisfying and salty crunch and works beautifully with the briny, toasted nori wrapper.
Another few delicious bites can be gleaned from a short rib steamed bun ($7.50). The bun has a pillowy, ephemeral texture that gives way to the savory and slightly piquant ribs, which are shredded and topped banh mi-style with cucumber, cilantro and carrots. The only drawback to the buns is that, like the hand rolls, they just don't last: two bites and it's on to the next dish in the flavor parade.
That dish could be the vegetable crudo, a rotating array of seasonal vegetables dressed in a bracing, lemony vinaigrette. This crudo proved to be a surprise hit. Paired with a generous slice of fresh goat cheese, the salad provides a treasure-trove of interesting fruit, vegetables, flowers and seeds that is as beguiling for the eye to behold as it is for the taste buds to enjoy.
An order of kimchi karage ($12.50) stands in fried, craggy contrast to the salad. Tossed in red pepper and soy, the fried chicken is matched in crispiness only by its potent flavor — the stuff of banchan dreams.
Top Knot provides ample opportunity to end things on a sweet note, with desserts like macaron ice cream sandwiches ($9), pear nabe ($9) and crème fraiche panna cotta ($9). The latter arrives nested in a little glass pot, which seems to hint that it must hold something special. Inside, the rich panna cotta is hidden beneath fresh blueberry sauce, miniature scoops of citrus sorbet and mochi, which is dried slightly before use. Each bite reveals something unexpected.
From start to finish, Top Knot delivers a meal that is memorable, consistent and full of flavor. The dishes that inspired much of the menu can be had — from restaurants that don't occupy the tenderloin of Dallas dining real estate — for far less. But then again, people don't patronize places like Top Knot for a totally authentic experience. They go for a version of authenticity filtered through a creative lens. Top Knot provides that filter, and for those who can stand macramé, it does it well.
Top Knot, 2817 Maple Ave., 214–855–1354. Open 5–11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-midnight Friday and Saturday with brunch from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday.
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