Fort Worth's Near Southside is quietly developing into one of the city's most formidable culinary corridors.
The embarrassment of riches is evident all along Magnolia Avenue. Anchored toward its western end by the nationally lauded Ellerbe Fine Foods, fresh-faced upstart Temaki Sushi and craft cocktail mecca the Usual (to name just a few), the eastern end of Magnolia is likewise no slouch -- home to Yucatan Taco Stand, Paris Coffee Shop, a clutch of eagerly anticipated, yet-to-open bars (including the Boiled Owl Tavern) and, now, a wonderful little curio called Shinjuku Station.
The brainchild of Tokyo Cafe's Jarry and Mary Ho, along with Casey and Elyssa Kha, Shinjuku Station has been open and quietly tinkering with its menus since March, and celebrated a weeklong grand opening in mid-July.
There is an almost palpable sense of movement within the spare, homey space (kudos to whoever assembled the restaurant's playlist, favoring the likes of Arcade Fire, Phoenix and the Killers). The room also features lots of exposed brick and ductwork, as well as sleek banquettes and a small bar. Out back is an expansive patio that should be buzzing whenever summer ceases its scorching wrath.
Modeled on the Japanese izakaya (which translates as an after-work pub that also serves food), Shinjuku Station, which was once intended to link up with Fort Worth's (now derailed) light rail line, offers an atmosphere unlike any other eatery in the city. Apart from a few favorite dishes (such as the savory tok fries, transplanted from Tokyo Cafe), the menu will likely keep evolving over time.
Shinjuku's emphasis is on small, strikingly presented plates -- although sushi is also offered here.
At lunch, the focus is on quick, easy and refreshing. The menu is dominated by bento boxes and rice bowls, with several options. Diners can let Shinjuku do the heavy lifting (the $15 "healthy" bento box includes a selection of tuna and salmon sashimi, a spinach salad, and a crab salad roll) or assemble their own lunch for $11, with a variety of choices, from chilled green tea soba noodles to roasted shishito peppers.
A quartet of donburi (rice bowls, $7-$12) provides a variety of textures, from the more traditional beef bowl, with its sliced beef drizzled with a sweet, spicy sauce, to the more alluring chirashi don, a riot of fresh sashimi and Japanese veggies served over lightly seasoned sushi rice.
Dinner is where Shinjuku Station's adventurous side comes out, spiking happy hour with a few truly gorgeous, exotic entrees. (Speaking of drink specials, don't miss the specially created cocktails, including the $8 cu-berry-tini, a wonder of fruity herbaceousness.)
The showstopper entree is, unquestionably, the ishiyaki ($23), which allows customers to play chef, searing paper-thin strips of Kobe beef on a scalding hot Japanese river stone. The effect is borderline narcotic: wielding chopsticks and maneuvering the meat onto the steaming stone, hearing it sizzle, watching it curl and plucking it off less than five seconds later, then dressing it with several varieties of mushrooms and dipping it into a slightly sweet soy sauce laced with ginger and green onion.
It's a delicious, evanescent bite, redolent of earthy flavor from the mushrooms and tasting faintly of fire. The only complaint is that it's over far too soon.
There are other highlights. The Hokkaido scallops and tuna tartare ($8), served on a lotus root crisp and dotted with roasted rice pearls, looks almost too beautiful to eat, but it's impossible to restrain yourself; the okonomiyaki ("Japanese pizza," $7) has a peculiar appearance but a rich, succulent flavor, thanks to nubs of pork belly. It's tucked amid more conventional Japanese fare like edamame and steamed rice.
Those who want to simply sip Sapporo and nosh on sushi rolls can do that. But taking a risk at Shinjuku -- try the magnificent peppercorn tuna sashimi ($15), which combines fierce heat and breathtakingly fresh fish -- yields tremendous rewards.
Let the helpful staff guide you; give yourself over to the smart, relaxed space; and use Shinjuku Station as a jumping-off point, a way forward into Magnolia Avenue's foodie future and one of the city's more exciting new restaurants.