by Andrew Chalk
Two things bound to power new restaurant openings are the end of a pandemic and a booming local economy. With Dallas seeing more people moving to it than any other US city, the current explosion in restaurant openings is no surprise. But it means it is harder for any particular restaurant to stand out.
One that will is Akira Back, the eponymous restaurant of an energetic and inventive sushi chef with a Michelin star and 20 properties in cities around the world. A measure of the prestige of this high-end collection is that other locations include Paris, Las Vegas, Dubai, Beverly Hills, San Diego, Seychelles North Island, Toronto, Singapore, and Seoul. Future plans are for 10 more over the next 2 years in cities including London, San Francisco, Houston, Doha, Riyadh, Marrakech, and Orlando. Dallas will be quite happy to be included in this club.
Is this Nobu, redux, I ask Back in an interview at a media event. The former Nobu executive chef acknowledges a debt to the great restaurateur but says his USP is his Korean heritage which helps him merge Korean cuisine with Japanese technique. That heritage, and growing up in America, he says, impacts how he thinks and who he is.
Why Dallas? It is no surprise, he says. He came to Texas 25 years ago and had nothing but pleasant experiences. “Texas is everywhere”, he says, “wherever you go you meet Texans”. The Dallas project was actually planned four years ago, right down to choosing the Grandscape development in The Colony as the site, and purchasing the avant-garde fish wall art which must go down as some of the most creative in the city. Covid put paid to those plans but with that done the restaurant opens tomorrow. He has been in town hiring, training, and meeting suppliers for two weeks and stays for another one (so, if you plan to make a reservation, make it for the next week and you will meet him). Then, after an opening in Istanbul, he returns in June to assess early results.
Grandscape was a giant furniture store when he and his team chose the location. Four years later, that decision looks prescient.The development is booming as a shopping and entertainment destination. One downside, they use the failed system of centralized valet parking. As a result, parking standards of service aren’t good enough for what either you, or the restaurants, want. One day, restaurants will refuse to have this restriction in their lease. First impressions are often made at the valet.
I ask him how his interpretation of sushi differs from other restaurants in town, given that north Dallas appears to be zoned ‘sushi’. He responds that, as well as traditional sushi, he offers a vegan section of the menu (he, himself, could not eat raw fish until he was 20), and a meat section where the wagyu beef is grade A5. As my descriptions below indicate, he also does his own spin on sushi, typically integrating traditional sushi with contemporary ingredients like flatbread, fruit, and even pop rocks candy!
Sake is a love of his, to the point of having his own Akira Back Sake label. However, supply chain hiccups mean that it won’t be at the opening. Expect the Junmai Ginjo to be available at a later date. What he does not have at the moment is any Texas wine. If he tried a McPherson Albarino with his toro I think it would change his mind.
Our 9-course meal is designed to give us a tour of the menu. Time and again, clever touches set off a dish as something distinctive. Less formal rules seem to apply to the dish creation than at a Nobu or other traditional sushi house. Apparently simple creations cache more involved techniques. For example, in the Salmon Pizza first course the salmon is fermented, drying the tissues of the fish, concentrating the flavor. In the salmon and peach plate a nose-clearing smear of wasabi on the underside of the salmon prevents the flavors just collapsing into a fruit compôte. Details matter.
Conceptual playfulness includes tempura tacos (for Texas), and a cigar for dessert, 100% edible.
There are other sushi leitmotifs that are preserved. For example, every course is a telegenic orgy of japanese precision in knife skills and color selection. I will let the pictures speak. But, before you sink into a sushi stupor, make a reservation -- for this week -- at Akira Sushi.