So many sushi/hibachi restaurants have opened and closed in Fort Worth the past few years, it would seem as if this fare has jumped the shark.
At first, sushi spots were few and far between here -- remember the novelty of eating at Piranha downtown? -- but now it seems we are surrounded by an onslaught of meh maguro and hackneyed hamachi. (And if I see another tempura-fried shrimp roll on a menu, no doubt artfully garnished with squirt-bottled orange mayo, I may just scream.)
Thankfully, Little Lilly Sushi has updated the local definition of sushi quite nicely. The revamped west-side restaurant -- taking over the spot where Hui Chuan Sushi, Sake & Tapas ably served our albacore needs for most of the past decade -- is anchored by head chef Jesus Garcia, who previously worked at some of the finest dining spots our area has to offer: Shinjuku Station, Piranha Killer Sushi and Five Sixty by Wolfgang Puck in Dallas. And if you squint really hard, you might be able to see the trail of bonito flakes from Reunion Tower to Camp Bowie, where Little Lilly aims to elevate the cuisine in much the same manner.
Tucked into an upscale shopping center, adjacent to a La Madeleine and a jewelry store, the space is mostly a holdover from Hui Chuan: The small, refined front room features a polished-wood, L-shaped sushi bar and a sprinkling of tables. The elegant private dining area with its sunken table and floor seating is still here, but the owners have indulged in more modern fixtures, like two peppy, astral chandeliers, and as a whole, the space has a more contemporary feel.
In truth, there's much that sparkles here, starting with spiced edamame ($3), a basket-steamed, chile-spiked serving of the soybeans, expertly cooked. Despite the restaurant's eclectic sake menu (we'll come back and order some once the weather turns a bit cooler), we stuck to our Kirin Lights and Sapporos as we deliberated our order.
And it was slow going -- only because Little Lilly's extensive and creative menu features not only the standard nigiri and sashimi selections, but also lunch and dinner bento boxes, as well as weekly specials, ranging from items like chicken karaage ($5), chicken thighs with fried ginger and soy aioli, to "live" San Diego uni ($20), sea urchin with shiso and lemon.
Being middle-brow sushi-lovers, we tested our limits with the surf-and-turf okonomiyaki ($7), a shrimp and pork belly pancake. Topped with bonito flakes, it made for an interesting presentation: When it was placed on the table, the flakes seemed to come alive, standing on end, as they effectively danced atop the hot pancake.
The rich pork married with the light shrimp made for an egg-y pancake sensation. No sooner did the flakes stop their dancing than they, too, had disappeared from the plate.
The hamachi zest ($12), a salmon, yellowtail and avocado roll, steered our culinary ship closer to a familiar port. The presentation was a knockout, with the ridiculously fresh fish going toe-to-toe with the creamy avocado.
But the biggest hit of the night had to be the kinrei (smoked salmon with green grapes and fried potato strings, $12), a delightful pairing of winning textures.
The service was attentive, and most importantly, our food was delivered at a leisurely pace, in the I-forgot-I-ordered-that-too kind of way that sushi should be eaten.
But perhaps the best part of all -- we didn't see a squirt bottle in sight.