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Sushi is on a roll into Cowtown

Who chops up your favorite sushi?
Posted 11:25am on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2010

Sitting at my dining-room table, the last of my takeout sushi polished off, I woozily toss my soy sauce-stained chopsticks onto the plate and groan. For the last two weeks, I've done little else but gorge on sushi. Crisscrossing the Metroplex, sampling everything from the surprisingly good to the one-bite-and-blech.

Don't get me wrong: I'm a big sushi fan -- it's how I wound up writing this story in the first place -- but sometimes, it is possible to overdose on your favorites. (Anyone who politely suggests sushi for lunch or dinner to me these days gets a nasty look. I'm sure I'll come around in a few months.)

Still, I could have never predicted during my first experience with sushi, I'd ever land here, stomach engorged and endorphins twittering happily.

I was just out of college and some older friends with whom I worked insisted on sushi for lunch. They were practically giddy at the prospect, reeling off all the "rolls" they were going to scarf at Sushi Neko.

If we had been in, say, New York City or Los Angeles, coastal cities with easy access to fresh fish, I would've felt a lot less hesitation. But we were in landlocked Oklahoma City, not exactly known for its top-shelf seafood. Plus, my familiarity with sushi began and ended with the words "raw" and "fish."

Wouldn't it be gross? Wouldn't it slither down my throat like a cold, slimy piece of ick?

Our lunch order hit the table and, chopsticks bared, everyone dove in. I sat there, a few pieces of glistening, yellowfin tuna nigiri and a couple pieces of California roll scattered on my plate.

What could be the harm? Nothing ventured and all that.

I slid the nigiri into my mouth and the sensation, initially gag-inducing, was eventually strangely fascinating. I snapped up another piece, dipped it in soy sauce this time, and devoured it.

I was officially hooked. I began an intense immersion in all things sushi, visiting as many sushi restaurants as I could uncover in Oklahoma City (hint: very few) and, later, when I moved to Fort Worth, diving into the wealth of sushi offerings the city and the region had to offer. There's something about the pleasure of all those flavors -- spicy, creamy, crunchy, fishy, earthy -- crammed into a compact form that delights like few other specialty foods can.

My interest in sushi dovetailed nicely with the national explosion of sushi joints, which has certainly taken hold in Fort Worth, the heart of beef country. The once-foreign food has officially swum into the mainstream, as appetizing a possibility to the masses as burgers, pizza or fajitas.

But, really, my fascination -- oh, let's just call it what it is: an obsession -- comes down to my love of a nice piece of nigiri and maybe a really good spicy tuna maki (or hand roll).

Give me that, and I'm a enchanted eater.

And I'm not alone.

Feeling Blue

Blue Sushi Sake Grill is buzzing. It's just before 7 p.m., and the dinner rush is kicking into high gear.

Waiters, clad all in black, flit between cozy tables, delivering stylishly assembled plates of sashimi, nigiri and maki, colorful cocktails and cans of Sapporo, while the chic room, humming with life and suffused with blue light, steadily fills with customers.

It's a scene you'd expect on a weekend, but it's a Tuesday night -- and there isn't a happy-hour special in sight.

That's when the realization hits: It's the fish that has these customers packed in like sardines.

Situated on West Seventh Street, right across from Eddie V's, the just-opened and very cosmopolitan Blue Sushi Sake Grill is part of a sushi tsunami sweeping its way through Fort Worth.

In addition to Blue Sushi, MK's Sushi, a local mini-chain with locations in Bedford and north Fort Worth, is slated to open its third restaurant at the corner of West Seventh and Foch Street later this year. A bit farther down the street, in the Montgomery Plaza shopping center, sits Sushi Axiom, itself part of a four-restaurant chain stretching from Burleson to Dallas. Work your way into downtown and over to West Third to find Piranha Killer Sushi, the erstwhile "grandfather" of this cluster of sushi establishments, which opened four years ago and has two locations in Arlington and one in Austin.

In a span of barely two miles, that's a total of four sushi restaurants -- what we in the biz like to call a trend.

Sushi has entrenched itself just about everywhere, from grocery stores (Kroger, Central Market, Tom Thumb, Target and Albertson's all carry a variety of hand rolls) to strip malls. All of the most heavily traveled corridors in town -- much of Hulen, a good portion of Camp Bowie and, now, an increasingly large piece of West Seventh -- sport numerous Japanese-oriented eateries, many of them devoted primarily to sushi. Although the sauce-drenched hand rolls are what get people in the doors, more and more customers are turning to the real thing, nigiri (a sliver of high-grade fish laid over a tight ball of rice) and sashimi (a thinly sliced piece of fish, served with little adornment). Palates that would have previously balked at the idea -- raw fish and rice? -- now welcome it with open arms.

Over the 13 years Fort Worth's Tokyo Cafe has been in business, Jarry Ho, its owner, has certainly noticed an uptick in the number of new faces, as well as an established clientele that has become emboldened.

"Now, just to stay competitive, you have to have everything, even exotic things," says Ho, who suggests that Fort Worth is now fully immersed in the sushi trend. "It's still not like it is maybe in Dallas, but we're getting closer. I used to order uni [sea urchin] once a month, now I order it every week.

"I don't think we're late [embracing sushi]; we're just getting into the trend," Ho adds. "The trend's already been on the coast for decades. I think it's just now catching on [in Fort Worth]."

Nowhere is this culinary embrace more evident than that roughly half-mile stretch of West Seventh.

Most surprisingly, each restaurant, save for the yet-to-open MK's Sushi, is hopping. On a recent Friday night at 10 p.m., the Montgomery Plaza Sushi Axiom was crawling with customers, some spilling out onto the patio. Patrons seem to treat these often luxe restaurants as pseudo-clubs, sexy spaces that just happen to feature pretty great food. Sushi is rapidly evolving into a see-and-be-seen kind of food, which, in a town built on beef and Stetsons, is weirdly exciting.

Each of the restaurants along West Seventh brings something slightly different to the table, and all are determined to ride this wave of popularity for as long as it lasts. "I do think there is a little bit of saturation [in Fort Worth]," Ho says. "I don't know if there's enough demand for three over there [on West Seventh]; I don't know if there's enough density yet. I do think a lot of them are the same, kind of cookie-cutter, with a bar and a beautiful atmosphere."

Cowtown stars

The latest addition to West Seventh's exploding restaurant scene, Blue Sushi Sake Grill first made waves in the Metroplex when TCU was competing in last year's College World Series in Omaha. The Fort Worth Blue Sushi is the company's first restaurant outside of Omaha, where it is headquartered, and it features local chef Ped Phommavong, who earned a loyal following at Haltom City's Mochi Kitchen.

Why venture beyond Nebraska? According to corporate executive chef Tony Gentile, it's because of his Texas roots. Along with partner and director of operations Anthony Hitchcock, who originally hails from Austin, Houston native Gentile says his years working with Central Market (he and Hitchcock helped get the Fort Worth Central Market up and running) and the attractiveness of the location made the move to Cowtown a cinch. He says they knew about the nearby competition before they signed the lease: "We truly feel that we offer a better experience, a higher energy."

For their part, Gentile says Blue Sushi designed their expansive menu to appeal to experts and novices alike. Blue Sushi offers a few Fort Worth-specific specialties, including the Horned Frog hand roll and the TCU Tower, a vertical stack of sushi, which includes crab, avocado, tuna, rice and fish roe. The restaurant's website even offers a brief sushi tutorial.

"We hit every one of those demographics: the person who's just getting into sushi to the person who really enjoys the finer things," Gentile says.

Arguably the most stylish sushi spot along West Seventh -- although, really, just about every sushi restaurant strives for an air of cultured brio -- Sushi Axiom, with its striking pane of falling water as you enter, feels like a Dallas hot spot.

The favored menu item here is actually not sushi -- that would be the to-die-for spicy tuna and crab "nachos" -- but the quartet of locations, from Burleson to Dallas to Fort Worth (where the first Sushi Axiom opened in 2007), boasts plenty of sashimi, sake and hand rolls.

In 2005, Mikyong Lee opened the first MK's Sushi in Bedford, before expanding to north Fort Worth, just off Western Center Boulevard. On a recent afternoon visit, the north Fort Worth location, anchoring one end of a strip shopping center, was about half full. Nicely appointed with all black furniture, dark walls and an expansive bar, this branch of MK's Sushi doesn't reflect what the West Seventh outpost, dubbed MK's Sushi III and with a much lighter color scheme, will look like.

So why is sushi so prevalent, particularly in this highly trafficked corner of Fort Worth? While the rise in sushi's popularity around the world has been attributed mainly to the supposed health benefits, Blue Sushi's Gentile has an answer that feels a little closer to the truth.

"It's a social experience," he says. "People enjoy themselves a little bit more [at sushi restaurants], there's a higher energy. There's just that feeling you get when you eat sushi."

I don't know if it's an energy, so much as it is the sensation of culinary escape, a dash of exoticism underpinning a good meal.

Even though I'm more well-traveled in the world of sushi, there are times, especially when I'm about to dine on really great sashimi or nigiri, where it almost feels like the first time -- slightly nervous, totally fascinated, eager and hungry -- all over again.

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