Sushi Stop at The Blue Fish
Get your roll on at The Blue Fish in our behind-the-scenes slideshow of the Washington Avenue hand roll hang-out.
While I was sitting at the sushi bar at Dallas import The Blue Fish, one thing became clear: It's probably not the best seating choice when visiting this fairly new Washington Avenue eatery, which opened last August.
The bar feels truncated, like someone arbitrarily lopped off half of it during construction. While most sushi bars run straight down the length of the chef's sushi station, which occupied the entire east wall, this one was restricted to a corner, so that it felt small even though I was sitting smack-dab in the middle of it.
"We purposely made the bar smaller in Houston because most Houston restaurants have smaller sushi bars," Vlad Fish, The Blue Fish's area manager, explained later. "Our sushi bar in Dallas has many more seats."
While I might be inclined to buy that explanation, there's also the fact that the bar sits low — level with the rest of the tables in the restaurant — so that interaction with the sushi chef is not face to face. Instead, it's awkwardly hindered by a foot of blue-lit wall. When you walk in and see the sushi chefs working intently, heads bent, their chef's whites starkly contrasting against a shiny backdrop of blue-tiled walls adorned with fish, it's almost as if they're just standing there for show.
It kind of makes sense, considering the location of this restaurant, situated as it is on Washington Avenue, an area known more for its club and social scene than for its food. The general ambience and decor are rather club-like, with black partition walls, glowing, blue-lit back lighting, and lightly throbbing techno music.
This is probably not the place for the true sushi aficionado. It's more of a meet-up-with-friends kind of a place than one to have some serious sushi. In hindsight, it was probably naive of me to hope otherwise.
During that first visit at the sushi bar, I asked the chef for the freshest sushi selections of the day. He pointed to an almaco jack (kampachi), a Japanese red snapper (tai) and the fatty tuna (toro), which he said had just come in five minutes before our arrival.
I turned to the menu to look for appetizers and small plates and quickly became confused. It had three different components: a traditional folded menu listing appetizers and entrées; a single laminated menu which had the roll descriptions without the pricing; and a paper sushi menu with the pricing, where you could mark off your selections.
When you flipped the rolls menu over, there was pricing for sushi and small plates (which were also listed on the folded menu), but again, not the rolls. I found myself flipping the menus back and forth to figure out how much a roll or a piece of sushi would cost. This non-transparent pricing system annoyed me on each of my three visits.
We ended up ordering a couple of appetizers, a specialty roll, the three fish selections suggested by the chef — kampachi and tai sushi and toro sashimi — and a serving of hamachi (yellowtail) sashimi on the belly side, my favorite.
The Ahi Tower, one of the signature appetizers, came out first. The server set down a pretty, tricolored column of rice, avocado, snow crab and sesame-marinated tuna topped with shredded seaweed, then toppled it over, quickly mashing everything up together so that the final plate we received look nothing like the original.
The pinkish-orange, amorphous mound of sticky rice was bland, pasty and starchy, with a not-so-smooth aftertaste. I noticed two of the women at the table of six behind me had ordered the same thing. I don't quite get why it's so popular.
Our Chilean sea bass appetizer was excellent, however, the fish buttery and flaky, slightly charred at the edges in a pleasing way. The blond miso glaze was a little sweeter than I would have liked, but I enjoyed this dish. Likewise, the specialty Rainforest Roll, which had been recommended by the server, was topped with a glistening mixture of spicy tuna and salmon and looked very appetizing. With its crunchy tempura shrimp center, creamy avocado and sweet eel glaze, this roll had all-around appeal. I was happy with the recommendation.
It was not until the sushi and sashimi arrived that things began to falter. Tastewise, the tai was acceptable, but the sushi rice was cold, dry and lacking in flavor where it should have been at body temperature, moist and slightly tangy with the taste of vinegar. The kampachi was not good at all, with a slightly slimy, yet powdery, texture that had me quickly eating some ginger to get rid of it.
The toro sashimi was good enough, but it wasn't the melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness I would have hoped for at $32 for an order of five pieces. And although the hamachi belly sashimi looked good, with a slight pink color indicative of fresh fish, it suffered from the same textural unpleasantness as the kampachi. It had a sort of slimy, powdery mouth-feel, tasting nothing like the slightly sweet hamachi belly that I love. My friend took a bite and wrinkled her nose in distaste.
I didn't want to waste what should have been perfectly good hamachi belly, so to be sure we didn't pass judgment incorrectly, I ate a piece of ginger to clean my palate before sampling a second piece. It made no difference. The second taste was exactly the same as the first, and we left the remaining portion untouched.
What appeared to be perfectly good sashimi left uneaten did not go unnoticed by the manager, who asked me if there was anything wrong with it. I didn't make a big deal about it but expressed myself honestly, shaking my head in apology as I told him, "It wasn't good."
Now, here's where I was impressed. The manager took the offending dish away and came back immediately to apologize and say that he would take it off our bill. Then, when our check arrived, he offered us each a $10 gift card to use upon our return. "Sorry about the sashimi," he said. "I spoke to the sushi chef about it and we're not sure what happened. We hope you'll use those gift cards to come back and try something else."
To get the weekend feel of the restaurant, I returned on a Saturday evening, close to 11 p.m. With one hour left until close, the restaurant was not full, but we were immediately seated and waited on without any rush.
Wary after our previous experience, I inquired about the freshness of the fish before ordering a live scallop sashimi and a couple pieces of uni. Both the server and the manager assured me that the uni would be excellent. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I found it to be good, not excellent. Fresh uni is buttery and melts on the tongue, with no fishy aroma. The uni we received, though generous in portion, had a slightly fishy aroma to it, which my friend confirmed when she looked up after eating her piece and concluded, "It was okay, but I've had better."
The live scallop sashimi, on the other hand, was very, very good, the best sashimi I tasted there over my three visits. Presented in a wooden box over a bed of ice, the live scallop tasted delicate and moist, tender and sweet. It also came with a baked side dish made of scallop muscle in a creamy white sauce, a nice surprise because this part of the scallop, which can be likened to chicken gizzards, is normally discarded. We enjoyed it so much, I thought it would be the highlight of our meal. But that was before we tried their SoBe, or South Beach Roll.
I would gladly go back for this light and delicious roll, which uses cucumber instead of seaweed for its wrapper. Presentationwise, it's thinly sliced and laid out flat to resemble a flower, with two leaves and cucumber strips standing in the middle of the plate. Salmon, crab stick and avocado are tightly packed together in the middle of the roll to create a lovely mosaic of oranges, pinks and greens. A tangy vinaigrette provided just the right flavoring for this refreshingly crisp roll. Everything, from the texture to the look, the temperature and the flavor, was perfect.
To that end, I found all the specialty rolls I tried to be excellent. Tian Lin, the executive chef over all of the locations, has created rolls that The Blue Fish executes well. They look good, taste good and are fun to share. Likewise, small plates like the Chilean sea bass sampler can be easily shared among friends over a couple of cocktails or a bottle of sake. The daily happy hour is another draw, with specials like $2 beers, $4 wells and small plates from $3 to $5.
Though the sushi and sashimi I sampled were inconsistent in quality, the restaurant management genuinely seemed to take pride in the quality of the fish served. The manager told me that people order a lot of sashimi, and that The Blue Fish consistently stocks specialty fish like the live scallops, which I so thoroughly savored. In order for the restaurant to maintain a more consistent quality, though, I think having a set fish-delivery schedule, instead of getting it on an as-needed basis, might work better. Currently, weekends seem to be a better choice if you want the raw-fish option at this location.
It's probably not a destination for a sushi connoisseur, but The Blue Fish is hip and cool without being too exclusive. The crowd, mostly in the twenties-to-forties range, is generally well-dressed, but this isn't one of those Washington places that will deny customers in sneakers or jeans. It's a good pre-event pit stop where you can gather with fun-loving friends who like the idea of sushi but aren't hard-core connoisseurs, people who are probably more likely to order rolls than sashimi anyway.
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