Let's deal with the objections right away. Yes, Abacus is expensive, with the kind of tab most of us can afford only for the most special of special occasions. And yes, the Shanghai-and-Tokyo-as-seen-from- Abilene menu is a bit all over the place. And yeah, the lobster shooters. They play to every cliché about showy Dallas excess.
Objections overruled. You can certainly spend this much at places where the dishes aren't this creative, where the ingredients aren't of this lofty quality, where the technique isn't this meticulous and the presentation isn't as dazzling. The Texas-Asia mashup, which gives you a menu ranging from sushi to steak, from kung pao shrimp to mac and cheese, keeps things interesting provided you're not a stickler for authenticity. (As for the lobster shooters, well, OK. They do seem a tired idea by now.) Owner Kent Rathbun may be one of Dallas' biggest celebrichefs, with his growing empire of restaurants, catering business and line of pantry products, but he hasn't taken his eye off his 15-year-old McKinney Avenue flagship; if anything, he's kicked things up a notch.
The elegant dining room is a soothing refuge - all the more so on some recent nasty nights. The lighting's muted, making the room's tones of wood and cream glow softly. The chairs and banquettes are ample and comfortable, the tables generously spaced. You might kick things off with a cocktail, either a well-made classic like a Negroni or a house concoction like the And Everything Nice, a soul-warming and not-too-sweet blend of scotch, dark rum, jasmine tea, lemon, absinthe and orange bitters.
Thus revived, you can embark on your world travels. You might start in Japan, with Abacus' extensive sushi menu. The "signature rolls" come forth precise and glistening. The caterpillar roll, for example - thin-shaved avocado wrapped around sushi rice, cucumber and freshwater eel - may not be all that unusual, but it's unusually well-executed. Drizzled with a sweet soy and eel glaze and sprinkled with sesame seeds, the slices undulate along a banana leaf, looking very much like their namesake, red-pepper antennae and all. The tango roll, with tempura snow crab, asparagus and pineapple, is topped with shaved mango and a mango glaze that shimmers like citrine-colored glass.
Next, you might journey to someplace that's a little like Italy, but seen through a kaleidoscope. In a sort of Mediterranean echo of the sushi rolls, the jumbo lump crab "cannelloni" uses shaved mango instead of pasta as a wrapper to enclose a rich filling of crabmeat and scallions. It's served with a complex-tasting smoked mango emulsion, and topped with disks of red radish and dots of avocado purée. Actual pasta appears in another Italianate riff: triangular butter-browned ravioli stuffed with lamb belly and fresh ricotta, dressed with a saffron butternut squash purée and topped with more ricotta and a sprinkling of microgreens. It's exquisite, as is the Beeman Ranch Akaushi beef tartare, the intensely beefy meat hand-chopped instead of ground, sitting in a pool of punchy horseradish aioli, topped with a bright yellow quail egg and accompanied by some bracingly astringent pickle slices.
But let's not forget China! The crispy kung pao rock shrimp do indeed rock, and crisply. They come under a blanket of shishito peppers with thin slices of kumquat and a scattering of toasted peanuts and scallions, plus a soy, orange and chile glaze. And then there's Mexico, in the form of a sope you sure won't find at your neighborhood taco joint. Here, the thick tortilla is topped with butter-poached lobster, shredded slaw and lime crema and dotted with huitlacoche purée, all on a chile de arbol salsa.
Some of these dishes may sound too fussy - what a friend calls the one-ingredient-too-many school of cooking. But the complexities work in dishes like the sope, in which the funk of the huitlacoche (corn fungus, a Mexican delicacy) and the deep notes of the chile salsa offset the delicacy of the lobster and the lightness of the crema.
A few dishes do get a little blurry. The Grand Marnier-glazed duck breast seems too much of a muchness, tricked out with celeriac purée, chestnuts, caramelized salsify, brandied-sour-cherry sauce, microgreens and - whew! - chestnut-milk foam. A salad of otherwise fine roasted baby carrots and watercress was marred by dollops of faintly unpleasant blue-cheese mousse. And the pork duo - slow-cooked rib and roasted tenderloin - just felt heavy. A better double act is the lamb duo, in which the unctuous braised belly contrasts nicely with the juicy, perfectly roasted slices from the rack. And ah, I loved the roasted venison. The faintly sweet, juicy meat comes in a beautiful red fan over herbaceous farro and roasted cauliflower, the plate decorated with an artful spatter of marsala-and-black-truffle demi-glace.
If you're not a venison fan, the steaks are a good bet. Rathbun recently began replacing Chicago's Allen Brothers with Texas beef purveyors like Harwood-based Beeman Ranch. It's a good move: I thought the New York strip from Allen unremarkable. The same cut from Beeman, rosy-rare with a savory crust, served with both béarnaise and a red-wine demi-glace, was delicious - and 12 bucks cheaper, to boot. You'll want a side or two with that steak. Go for the intensely cheesy mac and cheese studded with bits of crisped pork jowl and topped with sourdough croutons. Or for the addictive tempura-fried baby bok choy drizzled with hot, sweet and salty chile-soy glaze.
You should leave room for pastry chef Chris McCord's architectural creations, like the lovely dome of chocolate mousse cake or the Nutter Butter Crunch, an ode to the groundnut featuring peanut mousse, peanut gelato and honey-roasted peanuts.
How you feel about the service here will depend on how you feel about the Texas-ultra-casual style, and how suitable it is at a place like this. I like my waiters friendly, but I don't expect them to be my best friends; me, I could use a wee bit more formality. And I do wish the wine list were a little more accessible. It offers many fine bottles - but precious few for the mere mortals among us who'd like more choices south of $100. I'd like to be able to have another bottle, to linger longer over the food at Abacus, which has always been good but is now even better.
Abacus (4 stars)
Price: $$$$ (appetizers, soups and salads $15 to $29; sushi and sashimi $10 to $22; entrees $37 to $60; desserts $4 to $12)
Service: Servers are knowledgeable and attentive, though sometimes a little too talkative. The friendliness can verge on intrusiveness.
Ambience: The large modern dining room is elegant and comfortable. There's lots of wood and stone, with glowing cream- colored walls. The side of the room that's near the open kitchen has a slightly more intimate, clubby feel.
Noise level: The tables are generously spaced, making for comfortable conversation even when the room is packed.
Location: 4511 McKinney Ave., Dallas; 214-559-3111; kentrathbun.com/dallas-abacus
Hours: Monday-Thursday 6 to 10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 6 to 11 p.m.
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar, and a wine list that's sizable, well-chosen and fairly wide-ranging - but pricey.
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor