January 31, 2010

Keiichi

I’m having a hard time writing about Keiichi, and I don’t know why. Located across from Charlie Beck’s Garage in the former Parkway Hair salon (you’d never know from the inside), it is, without question, the best place in Denton for sushi. In fact, it’s so good, it’s spawned rumors and legends. A girlfriend told me recently that on a plane ride back from Florida, a seat companion told her he'd heard about "... a sushi place in Denton where the Dallas sushi chefs go to eat.”

Well. If Dallas sushi chefs come here, it must be good, right? Sorry, does that sound a little like kid-sister aggravation, on behalf of my city? Maybe it is. Perhaps the point was: people are willing to make the drive north, all the way to Denton, to eat this sushi, and that I don’t doubt. It may be the best sushi in North Texas.

In fact, it’s already so well known, by word of mouth, its only Web presence is a plethora of reviews and a map - no Web site. And that doesn’t really matter, in this case, because the menu changes every day. The chef and owner, Keiichi Nagano, creates the daily menu based on the best of what fish he’s got and, weirdly enough, what few Italian dishes he feels like preparing. More on that later.

I read a few of these Web reviews and a couple stuck out for me, including the number of reviews from loyal regulars and the one review where the diner mentioned the chef never smiles. I wonder if that's what makes it hard for me to write about Keiichi? I have noticed that every time we’ve been, there are always some regulars who seem bent on letting everyone know (and reminding the chef) that they are regulars, and the chef rarely smiles at anyone who isn’t a regular. Perhaps it’s that in a place so small, you can’t help but interacting a little, and a friendly glance from the chef really goes so far in making you feel welcome and comfortable and relaxed, particularly about spending so much.
And you will spend a lot – Keiichi is not cheap.

Now, grimly focused chef or no, nothing can take away from the quality of this fish – that is something I DO know about.
On this, my third visit, the Significant Other (S.O.) and I enjoyed a repast of:

  • Spicy Tuna Roll – I know - kind of prosaic, right? What can I say? This is by far the S.O.’s favorite roll, and why wouldn’t we try it here? Not a disappointment. Noticeably better than even the good rolls we can get elsewhere.

  • Flounder and yellowfin sushi – I prefer the more tender tuna to the flounder, but grew up eating it (cooked) and just had to try it. When was the last time you saw fresh flounder in North Texas? Two pieces of sushi per each order.

  • Crab sushi – Nothing special really. Fresh, cold crab legs. I’d rather have them hot with butter. And in abundance. 2 pieces per order.

  • Grilled yellow tail collar – Listed as an appetizer, it was served last. The chef did explain that it took time to, you know, cook, whereas the sushi could be prepared more quickly. No matter, it was worth the wait. Wow. Yellow tail collar is just what it sounds like, the grilled collar bones of a yellow tail tuna. I have no idea what it was marinated in, and I don’t care. It was some of the best cooked fish I’ve ever eaten. It was perfectly tender too, so we were able to pick those bones clean, using just our chopsticks. I may not be elegant with chopsticks, but I am effective. It was so good the S.O. kept saying, “What do you want next? What’s next?!” Greedy. After he calmed down and we both enjoyed this, I was inclined to agreed we might try something else…


  • Beef tataki – Another wow. I’d never had this, nor even knew what it was (the menu is light on description), but we guessed it was something we saw the other folks at the bar order, so we rolled the bones and went for it. Turns out, it's ridiculously tender beef, seared on the outside, cool on the inside (like seared tuna), sliced and served up with sautéed spinach. I added a little of the fresh wasabi, rolled it up around some of that spinach and popped it in my mouth. Holy Moly. I had to throttle back so I didn’t scarf this all up in a minute.


  • Now, it’s a well known fact that the more you enjoy a meal as an experience, the more inclined you are to prolong it with dessert, coffee, drinks, etc. I love good coffee, but I’ve never been able to cap off a meal with it. I mean, I want dessert. The chef was offering some homemade sorbets that evening – orange, grapefruit, and pomegranate – and we were clever enough to ask for a sampler, which they delivered. Oh they were just ridiculously good.

    Ooh! Before I close out my description of this meal, I want to tell what I drank – the sake flight! How cool is that? A Sake Flight! Perhaps you know something about sake, my dears, but I know nothing, other than that I like it. I’ve never had a sake I hated, but I’ve never done any sort of real sake sampling and comparing, so I was really pleased with this. I should mention too, this is cold sake. I’ve been told that sake good enough to be served cold, is the better sake, whereas stuff served warm is warmed to maybe cover flaws in taste. Now, I have no idea if that’s true (and I’d love to hear from you, if you know - these folks have another take), but I do know that this sake was really good. I loved the little card that came with it, describing each of the 3 offerings, and loved how very different they did taste from each other. I think the middle offering was my favorite. The S.O. stuck to his usual – beer. In this case, a Sapporo.

    On this visit, we also enjoyed sitting near a large Japanese family. (It was us and them at the bar.) The matriarch of this family struck up a conversation with us, based largely on her appreciation of Chef Nagano’s talent. She told us she followed him from restaurant to restaurant, and had driven down to Denton from Dallas, with her visiting children and grandchild, just so they could all eat his sushi and, that night, mushroom pasta. She also assured us he uses the best seaweed (you know, for the rolls) and that even in Japan, you’d have a hard time finding sushi this good. I admit, my sushi palate is nowhere near refined enough to discern subtle differences in dried seaweed, but I bow to her appreciative knowledge. We, in turn, impressed her by ordering the yellow tail collar, “You really do like Japanese food.” Seriously though, y’all, if you like even cooked fish, you would have loved that dish. Sometimes I think Asians think round eyes are food weenies. Or very unadventurous. Whatever.

    Now I already mentioned that the chef prepares a daily menu of the finest and freshest. In addition to all the other touches of excellence, he uses real wasabi root. You'll know because he grates it right in front of you. In front of everyone, actually, Keiichi is a very small place.

    The sushi bar, which takes up more than most of the restaurant, seats 10 and that’s it. There’s a small table tucked in a nook behind the front door, which seats 6, maybe 8 if you push it, but that’s reserved, obviously, for parties. Occasionally singles (and maybe a double) can get a seat at the actual bar, bar. But I think that only seats 4 or 6, and is usually used for waiting for your reserved seats. If you’re going to eat here, you’ll most likely be at the sushi bar.

    All these qualifications and praise aside, if rolls are your thing, I would skip Keiichi. It is must be said, Keiichi is expensive. Not crazy so, but you know you have to order several things (and you’ll want to order plenty) to make a meal of sushi or sashimi. The meal I described above cost about $100, before tip. And, frankly, I think a meal of rolls might be a waste of this amazing quality fish. Of course, if you’ve toured all the roll joints in Denton, and you just have to come here for rolls, then do it. But never say I didn’t warn you.

    I almost forgot, I promised to talk more about the Italian food. OK. If you read a few reviews or stalk him online (feel free to read this patronizing article), you’ll find he started out in the US cooking in Italian restaurants. Yeah; go know. Apparently, he developed a taste and affection for it too, and continues to offer a few dishes each night. Well why not? So really, a meal at Keiichi should be able to please everyone.

    Tell me what you think.
    Keiichi on Urbanspoon

    January 1, 2010

    Winsome Winston-Salem, NC

    Field Trip Alert!

    Today kids, we’re talking about Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I can almost hear you saying, “What’s that got to do with Denton?!” Well, remember how DFW is one of the things that makes Denton so swell? Happily, you can get direct flights from DFW to Greensboro, NC (GSO), and from there travel over to Winston-Salem.

    A better question might be, “Why Winston-Salem?” Well, I’ll tell you. One of my sisters, a former Dentonista, made her circuitous route (via Syracuse and D.C.) there and put down roots. So now, after 10 plus years of being the home for the holidays, SHE (and her S.O.) hosted the family this year. So my S.O. and I and our other sister posse-d up there for the holidays. And y’all, you know how you dread having to get together with your family for enforced festivities? Well it’s not like that for us. We were all looking forward to it (maybe no one more than me, the former hostess), so we were all prepared to have a great time. I won’t bore you with the details of all our family traditions and frolicking, because that’s not something you can participate in. No matter how good a hostess my sister is, she’s not up for random Dentonites knocking on her door, but I WILL detail what’s good, fun, and tasty in Winston-Salem.

    I will warn you now; I was totally lax in taking pictures - other than of our Christmas celebration. Pathetic really. After each delicious meal, I’d think, “D’oh! I forgot to take pictures!” Although, I think we can both agree, my food photography could be described as ‘unappetizing’. In fact, if anyone can give me some advice, so my food looks more like this or this, PLEASE let me know.


    Where to stay
    Well, on our last trip there, we stayed at the Shaffner House Bed and Breakfast, and I can totally recommend it. Beautiful, historic home turned into a Victorian-style B&B, with excellent breakfasts.

    On this trip, inspired by my sister’s previous success with Priceline, I cheaped out and bid. I got us booked at the downtown Marriott for $52 a night, y’all. I’m a convert now. Plus, you know the Marriotts all have those fluffy blankets and squashy mattresses? Oooh, like sleeping on a marshmallow covered in marshmallow fluff. Diviiine.


    What to do
    I don’t think any trip to W-S is complete without a trip to Reynolda House. In fact, with Hanes shutting down, I think that (and Wake Forest University, and Wachovia Bank) may be the economic strong holds in town; I could be wrong though.

    Anyway. Never heard of Reynolda House? Don’t feel like the Lone Ranger. How about this – Reynolda House Museum of American Art displays a premier collection of American art ranging from the colonial period to the present. Built in 1917 by Katharine Smith Reynolds and her husband Richard Joshua Reynolds, founder of the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, the house originally occupied the center of a 1,067-acre estate. It opened to the public as an institution dedicated to the arts and education in 1965, and as an art museum in 1967.

    That’s right. I think the house it worth seeing, just to see how our tobacco barons lived. Can you say “personal pipe organ” kids? Yes. That’s correct. Well, in addition to the former occupants’ opulence, there’s all that art. Totally worth seeing.

    Old Salem – OK, I have to mention Old Salem because it’s a big part of Winston-Salem and some people (including the resident sister – let’s call her “K”) love historic villages. The Other Sister, “J”, and I can’t believe it. J said, “Haven’t we seen every oldest house, library, civil and revolutionary war battle field, whatever in the US?!” I could add dusty county registrar’s offices too. How else did you look up the family tree before the Internet?

    Yes my dears, those were our family vacations. Well apparently one of us did not regard them as the total rip-off they were. One of us became a total nerrrrrrrd. Might I add, K likes road trips too?!! Maybe she’s a changeling…

    Ahem.

    Now, all that said. Go check it out. There is something for everyone there, including a toy museum, which is fun for the kiddies and adults alike. I’m telling you, there were some creepy looking toys back in the day. I’m also partial to the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts. Enter your own Velvet Elvis joke here. Got that out of your system? Good. I admit I had plenty of fun with that myself, but there are so many really cool things there, you’ll stop looking for John Wayne clocks -with burnt edges - and really start digging it. I imagine once you see Winchester , the smiling ceramic lion, you’ll fall in love. Don’t worry; there are soft, stuffed Winchesters to take home available in the gift shop. And, if you’ve never been to one of these historic villages, you will stand around with your mouth hanging open wondering how a family of 11 could live in a house the size of your bedroom or your living room, at the largest.

    Downtown - I mentioned the Marriott was downtown, right? Even if you're not staying there, you will want to come down, park, and walk around. There are shops, galleries, food (K recommends the Mellow Mushroom) and pretty much everything else you'd want from a little walk around a nice little city - including old architecture and a farmer's market.

    Drive Around - Winston-Salem is a much older city than Denton, and it shows in the beautiful and diverse architecture. Check it out.


    Where to eat
    6th & Vine – I like to think of this downtown restaurant as a smaller, less pricey Hannah’s. The food is that good, the wine list that extensive, and there’s even original art on the walls. Did I mention, it’s even in walking distance from the Marriott? Oh, and Sundays? Half price wine. Yeah. This go around we met up for Sunday brunch, and I can tell you the Crabcake Benedict is not to be missed.
    6th & Vine on Urbanspoon

    The Old Fourth Street Filling Station – Not cheap, but not budget busting for two on vacation and so lovely, especially if you can sit outside. I got the Small Bites special (3 for $19) and was not the least bit disappointed (or hungry). I honestly can’t remember what the rest of our party had, but I DO recall they were all pleased. Plus, it's always cheaper at lunch...
    4th Street Filling Station on Urbanspoon

    West End Café - Oh this is the perfect place for lunch. With daily soup, sandwich, and dessert specials on top of their already extensive, homemade menu, you will find something you want to eat. And, it’s one of those places that work whether it’s hot or cold outside. Oh! And if you have to wait a few (and you might) you’ll want to be outside, so you can observe the koi pond.
    West End Cafe on Urbanspoon

    Simplyummy – The out-of-towners gave our hostess and host a break, and met up here for breakfast one day. Oh man, am I glad we did! Located in the tiny, former blacksmith’s shop at Reynolda Village, they had an extensive, delicious, and cheap breakfast menu. I’m talking 3 eggs with your choice of bacon, sausage, or turkey sausage, toast, and fruit or grits for $6. Yeah. $6. (Next time, I’ll get the fruit; the grits were bland.) Of course, because I’m used to getting everything (and exactly what) I want when I eat out (have been since I was a kid), I also had a latte (luke warm) and the NYC cheese biscuit with cream cheese (not to be missed).
    Simply Yummy on Urbanspoon

    Brixx Wood Fired Pizza – Have you noticed how wood fired pizzas are all the rage now? I for one am quite pleased about this, and was very happy when K suggested we grab dinner here one night. Not only do they have an extensive beer list, they offer beer flights! Aside - I LOVE flights. Beer, wine, sake, champagne, tapas, whatever it is, if I get to sample many things vs. one, I’m so very satisfied. And, their pizzas were incredible. I really enjoyed K’s grilled vegetable pizza. When does that ever happen? I don’t know what they did to those vegetables, but even I was digging the broccoli (ack) and green peppers (ick). In fact, I think I’ll order the veggie next time around - it was the best one on the table!
    Brixx on Urbanspoon

    In closing, I will say that this is obviously a small fraction of what you can enjoy in Winston-Salem, and doesn't even touch the surrounding areas. However, I can guarantee, you can have some fun if you find yourself over that way. And, if you've been and want to mention what you enjoyed there, I'd love to hear from you.