By DOTTY GRIFFITH / The Dallas Morning News
Wanna know a secret about finding good sushi? Follow a chef to his or her favorite sushi place. Chefs love to wow other chefs. There's no better way to learn the off-menu specialties and get treated to impromptu creations than to dine with a chef.
François and Catherine Fotre, both classically trained and known for their cooking and teaching skills, eat sushi on an average of twice a week. The Fotres founded La Mirabelle, now under new ownership, and Cafe C in Little Elm, now closed. They're such devoted fans of Simon Chuang at Simon's Sushi that Mr. Chuang stores their red lacquer chopsticks. When the Fotres arrive, places are set at the sushi bar and their personal chopsticks are unpacked from their carrying cases. And out come their personal cedar sake boxes, hand-painted by Mrs. Fotre.
It was, in fact, their tout that led me to Simon's Sushi in the first place.
The Fotres don't really have to place an order. After years of serving them, first at Nakamoto where he spent 16 years and now at his own place, Mr. Chuang knows what they like. He begins by preparing a sashimi platter (fish only, no rice) of whatever is freshest, as well as the giant clam ($15) that Mr. Fotre favors. On a recent evening, salmon ($4), skin-on red snapper ($4.50), tuna ($4.50) and octopus ($4.50) made up the rest of the offering. Each was cut perfectly, and the fish melted in the mouth. The fish was so mild, so fresh (particularly the tuna and red snapper) that eating was more tactile than taste.
Without even asking, Mr. Chuang began preparing more. That's the thing about chefs. They communicate about food better than the rest of us, even when they're from disciplines as disparate as classic French and sushi. Food transcends language barriers, too.
Despite the three-way ESP, French-born Mr. Fotre's accented baritone, magnified by military bearing learned in the Foreign Legion, occasionally grunts verbless requests across the bar to Mr. Chuang. "Pig's feet?"
Mr. Chuang responds as if chopping a pile of concrete blocks with his bare hand. "Hai!" he grunts from the diaphragm. That means yes. An assistant goes to the kitchen for fried, glazed pig's feet ($12), another of Mr. Fotre's favorites. Simultaneously he picks up a knife as slim and sharp as a scalpel to slice pieces of raw fish with surgical precision.
Don't expect to find pig's feet on the menu. Or warm cucumber roll ($12), created especially for Mr. Fotre. Thin-sliced cucumber replaces nori as the binding around salmon and sea scallop. Blonde miso sauce lightly bathes the rolls. This dish could almost be French in flavor profile and execution, it is so delicate and subtle.
Another dish you may want but can't find on the menu is chawan mushi (egg custard, $6.50). However, if you know to ask - and chefs always get to know others' off-menu specialties - these treasures can be yours. The custard is stupendous and seldom found in area sushi restaurants.
"See, it has no eyes," says Mr. Fotre, meaning no air bubbles in the baked-egg dish. The custard is as smooth, moist and creamy as a crème brûlée, but it isn't sweet. Mildly savory, it is filled with pieces of seafood that give it a slightly briny taste.
Mrs. Fotre, whose Brooklyn accent has diminished but not disappeared after 14 years in Texas, declares the egg custard one of her favorites. She loves to make it her final dish because "the warmth just seems to settle everything else."
She also recommends the dobinmushi soup ($6.50), served in a teapot with a small teacup. Pour the broth into the cup and sip. When the broth is gone, use chopsticks to pick out the morsels of ginkgo nuts, shrimp, chicken and shiitake mushrooms from the bottom of the pot. That dish is on the menu, as is another of Mrs. Fotre's recommendations, agedofu or fried tofu squares ($4.25).
Not quite as adventurous, Mrs. Fotre often skips another of Mr. Fotre's off-menu favorites, tempura fried octopus ($9), similar in taste and texture to fried chicken gizzards. She also passes his meal-climaxing uni (sea urchin) with raw quail egg, seasonally priced at $8.50. "It's like butter," he exclaims of the yellow-orange delicacy that's scooped from the inside of a hard, spiny shell and served on a pat of rice held together by nori. The taste is a slightly fishy butter, but yes, it is smooth and fatty in the buttery way of foie gras mousse.
Even without the company of Mr. and Mrs. Fotre, a visit to Simon's Sushi was still a very pleasant experience. Yes, the sushi is good, very good. But, more than that, it is the atmosphere, the repartee between diners and Mr. Chuang, who seems to know almost everyone who comes into his small, modestly appointed storefront restaurant. Even if you're not known, it won't take long for him to draw you into the fold if you can go with the monosyllabic flow of conversational grunts.
Although first-timers don't get the inside track to off-menu creations, a frequent special, tuna tempura roll ($12), is definitely worth a try. Light batter encases nori rolled around tuna with a green onion in the middle. Each slice gets a spot of Sriracha Sauce (similar to a fiery ketchup).
Various nori-bound rolls of rice wrapped around cooked or raw fish are fresh. Servings are generous enough so that the rice helps to fill for those who worry that a few pieces of just fish will leave them longing.
Service is attentive and delightfully obliging. BYOB is fine; Mr. Chuang isn't licensed yet to sell alcoholic beverages.
Getting to know a chef who knows a sushi chef can be a shortcut into the chef's mind and heart. Then he starts making special things, just for you. Like fried, glazed pig's feet.
John David Emmett / Special Contributor
REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION OF THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS.
-DATE- Fri, 7 May 2004
-PAPER- THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS
-HEAD- Insider secrets Following sushi-loving chefs leads to
a wonderful new restaurant
-BYLINE- DOTTY GRIFFITH