Masayuki Otaka is the yakitori king of Dallas.
There he stands, at his customary spot at the bar, attentively tending his binchotan grill: fanning the superhot Japanese charcoal with a small bamboo-and-paper fan, lifting a skewered chicken thigh to check its progress, turning skewers of sliced pork as they gain the perfect char, dipping them with sauce. Savory-sweet smoke snakes up and around, fragrant with fat and char and miso and soft melting onion.
Otaka has ruled that spot – facing the prime seats at the front of the Lower Greenville bar – for 20 years. It was in the spring of 1995 that Teiichi Sakurai (owner of Tei-An and Ten, the ramen shop) opened Teppo Yakitori-Sushi Bar, his first Dallas restaurant. Otaka started as sushi chef when it opened and became yakitori chef toward the end of that first year; in 2008 Sakurai sold him the place.
Don't think this is just meat on a grill; Otaka prepares and cooks his yakitori, which literally means grilled chicken, with painstaking attention. Some items, like Kurobuta pork toro (jowl) and beef tongue are dressed only with sea salt. Others, like dark meat chicken with scallion-like Tokyo negi or day-boat scallop wrapped in bacon, get dipped in yakitori sauce partway through the grilling process.
The sauce, made from shoyu, mirin, chicken bone broth and Tokyo negi, achieves its deep flavor via 15 hours or more of slow simmer and reduction. The expensive Japanese binchotan charcoal that powers the grill burns superhot, about 760 degrees, and imparts its own wonderful flavor.
When I first reviewed the place in 2011, I was sometimes wowed by what came off that grill, and sometimes disappointed. But a series of visits to Teppo over the past year have been deliciously transporting.
It helps to have a plan when you dine there, as the menus, numerous and extensive, can be overwhelming. A regular one offers cold dishes, hot dishes, soups, noodles, rice dishes and more. There's a cold-specials menu and a hot-specials menu – spelled out on a blackboard above the sushi bar as well – along with a list of yakitori and kushiyaki dishes and another of sushi and sashimi.
One delicious way to go is to grab a seat at the bar, especially if you can nab a prime one in the front near Otaka, and focus on yakitori, preceded by a special or two.
Maybe sawagani, Japanese river crabs barely bigger than your thumbnail. Here they're fried naked to a brilliant coral-red and arranged around a landscape of pebbles: Pop them in your mouth whole for a fragile crunch. Sashimi of abalone that was live in the shell just moments before was magnificent recently, thin slices prettily scored to enhance the uniquely crunchy texture.
Meanwhile, there's a hidden gem on the regular menu: a platter of assorted Japanese pickles. The colorful array of vegetables stars wonderful textures and tastes – purply salty cucumber that squeaks in your teeth; lightly spicy, lacy mustard greens; soft, umami-rich and fermenty Japanese squash; and more.
Then on to the yakitori: something chickeny, for sure, like "premium" thighs – a prized thumb-size cut – that are frequent specials. As the skewered meats come off the grill, Otaka deposits them on your plate, adorned with a dab of hot mustard and a mound of togarashi (Japanese red chile pepper). Giant, tender chicken meatballs are super flavorful, served with quail egg yolk to dip them in. Pork is very good, too, maybe meltingly rich slices of the Kurobuta toro kushiyaki that Otaka tops with a tangle of finely julienned scallion greens. There's beef tongue (tender, nicely charred cubes), Texas quail, okra with bacon and – often on special – spectacular (and very expensive) Miyazaki Wagyu beef.
Sushi is part of the Teppo equation; it's right there in the name. But to my palate, the sushi offerings and the regular menu are the least interesting. To make the most of an evening that branches out from yakitori, explore the specials: That's how you find not just amazing raw and cooked fish, but also some deliciously inventive dishes.
In the fall, I flipped for slabs of fresh octopus, each topped with a shaving of lardo Ibérico (cured fatback from Spain's prized Ibérico pigs) and a dab of lightly spicy, bright-orange cod roe for an unctuously sexy bite. Velvety, miso-marinated cubes of foie gras dressed with glossy dots of miso and strewn with toasted pecan have become a Teppo signature, and for good reason. A bowl of sautéed littleneck clams was wonderful recently, as was orata – an adorably plump and flaky-fleshed Mediterranean fish whose delicate flavor took mighty well to the yakitori grill, where it was tenderly charred whole. I was a wee bit disappointed, though, when a server instructed us to pour soy sauce over the grated daikon that garnished it; a gorgeous $40 fish deserves its own sauce.
Inattention to saucing and marinating is also why the sushi here doesn't particularly stand out. The fish itself is top-quality, and the rice decently seasoned, but something like Spanish mackerel benefits from a careful cure. Again, the specials are the way to go, especially if you spring for fresh wasabi at $7: maybe jumbo clam from San Diego, pale pink, crunchy-hard and fabulous; or silvery-edged, silky slices of Japanese snapper. It has been hard to find great uni lately, so I almost didn't order it at Teppo. Bingo: It was excellent.
If you do make sushi part of your dinner, the attentive, thoughtful servers suggest that it come last, and they're right. Normally I like to end with a hand roll, but Teppo does a delightful maki "big roll," each thick slice showing a beautiful mosaic inside of snow crab, tamago (sweet omelet), crunchy-tangy picked gobo root, shiitake mushroom and more. Or you might ask for a rice ball grilled over the binchotan then painted with savory, blond miso paste.
There's a wide array of inventive desserts, as well. I can do without the dryish Kabocha pumpkin crème brûlée and the decidedly un-tartlike Fuji apple "tarte Tatin" (more like a fine-crumbed apple upside-down cake), but loved a deeply caramelized sticky toffee pudding topped with a scoop of fabulous house-made matcha green tea ice cream. All the ice creams I tasted were terrific, in fact.
In them, you can taste the passion for excellence, simply expressed, that makes Teppo an outstanding, exciting address.
Teppo Yakitori-Sushi Bar (4 stars)
Price: $$$-$$$$ (soups $3.50 to $6.50; cold dishes and specials $5.50 to $34, hot dishes and specials $4.50 to $110; rice and noodle dishes $5 to $35; yakitori and kushiyaki $3 to $15 per skewer; sushi and sashimi $4 to $32; desserts $6 to $10)
Service: Attentive and helpful
Ambience: An intimate, quietly graceful dining room, with a handful of tables on one side, a long yakitori and sushi bar on the other and a large tatami table in the front window
Noise level: Music plays pretty softly, if at all, so conversation is easy.
Location: 2014 Greenville Ave., Dallas; 214-826-8989; teppo.com
Hours: Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday 5:30 to 10 p.m. (orders must be placed by 9:30 p.m.); Friday-Saturday 5:30 to midnight (orders must be placed by 11:30 p.m.)
Reservations: Accepted only by phone, only during business hours and only for parties of four to six until 7 p.m. Reservations at the tatami table are available for parties of six to eight on Friday and Saturday only, at 5:30, 7:30 or 9:30 p.m.
Credit cards: AE, MC, V
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Beer, wine and sake only
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor
Average dinner per person
$ -- $14 and under
$$ -- $15 to $30
$$$ -- $31 to $50
$$$$ -- More than $50