Irasshaimase! comes the cry from the sushi bar when you enter the dining room at Sushi Bayashi. The Japanese expression of welcome bodes well for anyone seeking good cheer and warm hospitality.
My guests and I are particularly happy to hear it here at Yuki Hirabayashi's new place in Trinity Groves, as the dining room is deserted - it's a gorgeous spring evening, and everyone's out on the patio, soaking up the golden rays of the setting sun. I can't blame them, but also can't help but feel that the inviting dining room we're entering is going to waste. With its blonde wood communal tables, banners fluttering from a high ceiling, decorative sake drums and giant blackboards announcing enticing specials over a sprawling sushi bar, it feels like a restaurant waiting to happen.
The idea is Japanese casual dining; Hirabayashi aims to re-create the feeling of a neighborhood spot in his native Asakusa district of Tokyo. "Friendly hometown service, simple dishes with traditional cooking methods and ingredients, this is what you can expect at Sushi Bayashi each and every visit," says the 2 1/2-month-old restaurant's website.
A printed menu offers a handful of appetizers, mostly fried, such as panko-enrobed croquettes of minced octopus (crisply turned out, but perhaps not as interesting as they sound), or pan-fried gyozas filled with ground pork, cabbage and aromatics with a straight- ahead sesame soy dipping sauce. But the blackboard offerings and specials, many of which are sushi or sashimi, are where the action is - another reason to be inside.
One of the best dishes in three visits was one of these, baby octopus that had been marinated in soy, mirin, sake and sesame, then skewered with lengths of scallion, grilled and showered with sesame seeds. Served with a wedge of lemon and a small heap of shichimi togarashi (Japanese seven-spice chile powder), they were tender and terrific, a tasty little bar snack. Thin slices of yellowtail belly sashimi had a buttery richness and satiny mouth feel, while sea trout sashimi - with a beautiful deep coral color and some of the richness of wild salmon - were cut a bit thicker.
For sushi lovers, the where-to-sit question is usually a no-brainer: Grab a spot at the sushi bar. That way you can communicate freely with the sushi chefs, see the fish in the case and watch the chefs work. Not so here, as the bar is tragically designed, so you're sitting too low: You can't see what's going on behind the bar. You're just staring at the wooden base of the fish case.
It's too bad, because Hirabayashi - who comes to his new place by way of Kenichi, where he was executive chef in charge of sushi for six years - is affable, engaged and enthusiastic about his fish offerings, eager to share whatever he's excited about at the moment with diners. Whatever you think about the sushi, he makes dining at the sushi bar fun and interesting.
One night he was charged up about his maguro - bigeye tuna, one of the most familiar sushi fish. Here, he said - taste this one, "from today." And here, another, "from yesterday." People commonly make the mistake that the freshest fish is always best, but tasting them side-by-side illustrated why that's not necessarily true: The second-day maguro was a little silkier in texture, with a slight, nuanced complexity and a bit more depth of flavor. Not better or worse than the day-one fish, but wonderful in a different way.
Halibut engawa sashimi impressed, too. Sliced from the dorsal fin, the cut has a halibut's delicate flavor but a completely different texture from the rest of the halibut; this was soft, tender and almost ropy - the way I'd imagine raw skate. Hirabayashi served it in a small bowl, dressed with ponzu, a dab of momiji oroshi (grated daikon with red chile paste) and sliced scallion.
There were also gently grilled yellowtail ribs - slender, soft-fleshed fingerlike morsels with lovely flavor you had to work a bit for, as there was a bone inside each.
Spotting sockeye salmon on the board, I asked if he could use that to make a roll. I love salmon skin hand rolls - with their crunchy pickled gobo root and peppery daikon sprouts - but I don't love the vaguely metallic taste of farmed salmon skin. Hirabayashi was happy to oblige, and the roll was splendid; the crisply fried skin was the piscatorial equivalent of great bacon.
There was admirable uni (sea urchin roe) from San Diego, and some nice kampachi, with a shiso leaf between rice and fish. But other sushi, whose rice tended to be underseasoned, too often disappointed. Albacore had good flavor, but was a bit tough. Surf clam - served as nigiri topped with a bundle of daikon sprouts secured by a paper-thin sheet of daikon - was pretty, but the clams were dried out. Bonito with a meaty, assertive flavor would have benefited from some kind of sauce or cure. Another nigiri sushi involved barely grilled, underseasoned slices of Japanese eggplant garnished with sliced scallion and secured with a thin daikon belt; a dipping sauce helped relieve the raw-tasting blandness.
Freshly grated wasabi was oddly liquid, and house-made shoyu (soy sauce) was a bit watery, lacking umami punch or depth of flavor. There's serious attention to detail at play, but those details often come up short. Fancy tea bags are never as satisfying as a pot of properly brewed genmai cha. But there is a good selection of sakes and Japanese beers, such as Coedo Beniaka, a lager brewed with sweet potato.
Given the immense likability of the vibe - Hirabayashi's friendly gregariousness seems to set the tone for the warm, attentive, engaging waitstaff, and that dining room is so attractive (and large) - I wish the menu ventured into more interesting territory. I didn't taste the two fried-and-curried cutlets (pork or chicken), but wasn't wowed by the tonkotsu ramen, whose broth, rich yet somewhat oily, was lacking in deep flavor.
I preferred the chanpon, a big bowl of seafood-topped noodles in pork broth that's a specialty of Nagasaki. At Sushi Bayashi the springy, ramenlike noodles mingle with shrimp, bay scallops, pink- edged slices of namaboko (fish cake), scallions, mushrooms and surimi (fake crab, the only ingredient I could have done without). The broth had a clearer flavor than that of the tonkotsu ramen, and the seafood was generous and well- prepared.
For dessert, there's monaka - airy mochi wafers stamped with a chrysanthemum pattern, filled with green tea ice cream or adzuki bean ice cream. It's a homey touch that feels just right.
Sushi Bayashi has so much going for it that I hope, over time, the rough patches smooth out and the menu rounds out and evolves. In the meantime, look for me at one of those cool communal tables, gobbling chanpon.
Sushi Bayashi (2 stars)
Price: $$-$$$ (appetizers $6 to $8, main courses $12, nigiri sushi $2 to $9, sashimi $8 to $19, sushi rolls $4.50 to $14, desserts $4 to $8)
Service: Attentive, friendly and engaging
Ambience: The spacious, airy dining room with communal tables and a long sushi bar feels like something you might find in Japan, but with much more elbow room. The patio also has communal tables.
Noise level: There's music (often classic rock), but not played so loudly it interferes with conversation. However, the dining room was always sparsely populated when I visited.
Location: Trinity Groves, 3011 Gulden Lane, Dallas; 972-684-5906; sushibayashi.com
Hours: Monday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m., Tuesday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m., Friday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 11 p.m., Saturday noon to 11 p.m., Sunday noon to 9 p.m.
Reservations: Accepted only for parties of six or more Credit cards: All major Wheelchair accessible: Yes Alcohol: Beer, wine and sake only. A thoughtful sake list offers about two dozen selections, and there are a few unusual Japanese beers in the mix. A cursory list of 12 wines includes seven available by the glass.
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor