As Olympians gather in Russia, we evaluate what’s fishy in the gayborhood


ON A ROLL | Sushi at Oishii — including the distinctive No. 42 roll, below — comes courtesy of chef Thanh Nguyen, top, and shows a deft balancing of complex flavors; the riceless rolls are the signature style at Ai Sushi Sake Grill at the ilume, bottom. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor

So, Russia doesn’t think much of gay people, huh? Fortunately, there are plenty of restaurants in the gayborhood that feel differently. And several of them specialize in sushi.
Hard as it is to believe, sushi was virtually unheard of in the U.S. until the 1980s — you don’t see Don Draper enjoying a hand roll on Mad Men, at least not the food kind. Equally hard to believe is that some people still think of sushi as nothing but “raw fish.” Presumably, they imagine a large mouthed bass, fished out of a lake, slit down the middle and presented on a plate. But for sushi connoisseurs, the vast array of sushi options is nearly endless.

Oishii Sushi & Pan-Asian Cuisine
Oishii has been a staple in Dallas’ gay community since it opened in the strip along Wycliff and Maple in 2003, but last year marked an evolution: After being closed most of 2013 for a remodel following a fire, it reopened in October with new décor, a revised menu and chef/owner Thanh Nguyen’s re-commitment to excellence. And excellence is exactly what you get, from the buzzy vibe to the hip new bar. And, of course, the food.

The best sushi is a balance of the soothing flavors inherent in a particular fish with traditionally bold spices: Wasabi, ginger, jalapeño, sriracha. Nguyen brings the heat with the G-force roll ($12.50), a spicy but deft handling of tuna, and with his yellowtail tataki, where chili oil and jalapeño provide structure.

The complexity gets notched up with the “on the border” roll ($12.50), which looks more like a salad of components than a traditional sushi roll. Served slightly warm with a delightful crunch, its combination of salmon, tempura and avocado in a ponzu-pico de gallo makes it one of the cleverest dishes on the menu.

Some of the most creative items aren’t even on the printed menu (check out the blackboard behind the sushi bar). “Specials” really are special here. The TriBeCa roll ($14.50) is a roll in name only: It’s more of a sandwich of soy paper, sticky rice and fried rice tips embracing fresh salmon and avocado, with a shmeer of spicy mayo and eel sauce for dipping. A hint of truffle oil gives it an earthy but not overwhelming aroma.

Eel and earthiness also are at the fore on another warm roll, with a pate of monkfish liver pressed over nori and rice that is textural and flavor-forward. The donut roll is not a donut, but a combo of toro and avocado in a spicy concoction.

Perhaps my favorite, though, is the No. 42 ($13), a reverse roll (rice on the outside, nori seaweed wrap on the inside), packing a soupçon of heat: spicy shrimp, jalapeño and sriracha paired with avocado and toasted sesame seeds. Dip it in some wasabi, and this 42 — like much of the menu at Oishii — could well be the answer to life, the university and everything.

Sushi-2Ai Sushi Sake Grill
The concept of “riceless sushi” is almost an oxymoron (traditionally, it’s the presence of rice that distinguishes sushi from sashimi), but at Ai Sushi Sake Grill — a relative newcomer that opened last fall at the ilume — that’s the signature style.

It didn’t original here; California restaurants have been doing it for about 10 years. (The main reason for the trend? Starchy rice makes you fat.) But the consequence is something else: The sushi becomes a fish-centric protein bomb.

And what a bomb it is. The mark of good sushi is freshness, which Ai has consistently maintained. It starts when their shaved ginger arrives in its natural pale-yellow color, not as hot-pink ribbons. The flavor isn’t in the color, but in the flesh: intense, pungent and fragrant — a perfect accompaniment to the fish.

The LoveLove roll ($15.90), made without rice or nori, is a tender bite of strips of tuna ensconcing crab, avocado and salmon without a hint of fishy aroma. It arrives with or without the house sauce, a spicy but not overwhelming concoction; get it on the side to control the array of flavors possible by experimenting with how much sauce, soy or wasabi to add.

Whichever way you go, the fish stands out, especially when paired with the ginger.

The same is true of the Rose roll ($15), a blossom of salmon wrapped around a salad of shrimp and crab, dotted with a button of sriracha chili sauce and served between petals of lemon wedge. (Presentation is elegant on all the dishes, as it should be.) The salmon takes on its best qualities when dipped in soy with a healthy dab of wasabi. (The Korean background of the owners informs a lot of the items here; like Thai cuisine, Korean food is spicier which accounts for the jalapeno roll.)

SushiFor a completely different experience, the Kristy roll ($15) binds together strips of yellowtail, salmon, tuna, asparagus and crabstick in a crunchy wrap of cucumber in low futomaki rolls with florets of cucumber crowning them. The Dallas roll ($15) is also hard to resist, not just for its name but for the inclusion of shrimp tempura.

Ai’s lunch specials include bento boxes, the best way for newcomers to sample a variety. But part of the fun of sushi is exploring new things. Diversity improves all human endeavors — no matter what Vladimir Putin thinks.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 7, 2014.