Top Knot may be the first-ever Asian fusion restaurant in Dallas that doesn't serve crazy rolls.
What??? Are you kidding me? An Asian fusion restaurant in Dallas that doesn't serve crazy rolls?
Yep. That's Top Knot, the stylish modern Asian spot that Austin chef Tyson Cole opened upstairs from Uchi two months ago. There you can get succulent Berkshire pork ribs in an apple-kombu glaze with coriander and mint. Or you can get a whole fried fish slashed open at the top and filled with papaya salad and Asian herbs. You can even get tidy little nori-wrapped sushi hand rolls cloaking pickled shrimp, chicharrón and cilantro.
But no rice-on-the-outside, anything goes, more-ingredients-the-merrier crazy rolls.
In case you haven't followed every twist and turn in the Uchi-Top Knot plot, here's the back story. Uchi is the second spinoff of the celebrated Austin original; there's also one in Houston. After earning a rare five-star review following its debut last summer, Uchi Dallas went on to nab the Best in DFW New Restaurant of the Year title for 2015. High drama followed: Not two weeks later, its owners invited Uchi's talented chef de cuisine, Nilton "Junior" Borges, to resign. Dallas' culinary world was stunned. (Borges is now executive chef at FT33, Matt McCallister's five-star Design District place.)
I haven't revisited Uchi since its new chef de cuisine, Jeramie Robison, took over, so I can't say yet whether what's going on there continues to merit five stars, or whether much has changed.
I can, however, suggest that if you've been curious about the modern Asian flavors or buzzy scene going on inside the comely two-story free-standing building on the corner of Maple Avenue and Randall Street, you'd do well to take a table a Top Knot.
Short version: It's less expensive than Uchi and a whole lot of fun.
Longer version: Pull up a chair, as Top Knot only takes reservations for parties of six or more and there's likely to be a wait.
You can have a drink on the patio in the meantime; unlike at Uchi, there's a full bar upstairs. The cocktails tended to be too sweet for my taste, but I loved a pear-and-thyme-kissed shrub that sparkled with prosecco. There are also some nice sakes, though they're pricey. If you're lucky, a server will come around with a complimentary passed hors d'oeuvre, just as you'd find downstairs: maybe a cut piece of one of those veggie banh mi rolls.
Once you're seated inside, the casual dining room, with its blond woods and colorful wall decoration, is great-looking. A long bar feels like the heart of the place, and there are good tables throughout: along a banquette under floor-to-ceiling windows to the front patio, and comfortable booths along one side and in the back.
You might start off with a "snack," such as a heap of thin, crisp yuca chips with velvety edamame hummus spread attractively on the edge of the plate, showered with lemon zest. There are two spectacular crudos, including one starring slices of beautifully sweet raw scallop, each dressed with a sliver of raw jalapeño, cilantro, mint and Thai basil leaves, lime zest, shaved red onion and a tangerine supreme. They're set in a pool of young coconut milk zinged with lemon grass, ginger, jalapeño and more; we used spoons to finish every drop. The gorgeous plate looks and tastes like something you'd find at Uchi.
The "vegetable" section of the shared-plates menu is also a gold mine. There you'll find a saladlike vegetable crudo with shaved summer squash (the crudo part), sunflower sprouts and a thick, oozy slice of excellent Miticana de Cabra goat cheese. Another plate layers cubes of ripe Asian pear over a purée of golden beets enriched with brown butter and topped with julienned raw candy-stripe beets – so pretty. And if you're a Caesar salad fan who fears there's nothing fresh to be said about the classic, order this one, baby cos leaves showered with a prodigious amount of snowy-fine Parmigiano-Reggiano and grated bottarga (much nicer than Caesars made with vinegary white anchovies standing in for the traditional salt-cured ones).
I enjoyed everything I tasted among the meats and fish featured. Crispy pork katsu may be simple, but perfect execution made it a standout: the pork cutlet was fried crisp and hot, yet it was tender and uncommonly flavorful; sliced into strips for easy sharing and served with mini-squeeze bottles of hot Chinese mustard and katsu sauce and a lovely apple-cabbage salad. I was happier spending $17 for that than $60 for the A5 Miyazaki Wagyu strip loin, six lightly seared slices that were soft, buttery and rich, if not as striking as treatments of the fabulous beef I've had elsewhere.
Chef de cuisine Angela Hernandez must run a tight kitchen, though: Execution was spot-on, with nary a misstep in the course of three review visits. And the service was at once charming, friendly, super professional and efficient, as flawless as the cooking.
Sometimes there's theater involved. Thai shellfish "Carta Fata" – head-on prawns and mussels in a substantial gingery-citrusy sauce – comes to the table sealed in the plastic bag in which it was cooked. The server snips it open and lets it spill dramatically into its bowl. The two prawns had such fabulous flavor I found myself sucking their heads, crawfish-style. (Pardon the gross expression – it's what they say in Cajun country, as there's no other way to describe it!)
While I appreciate the fact that Hernandez and Cole's modern style avoids Asian fusion cliché, I wish the menu were a little more improvisational, maybe offering a special or two to keep things dynamic, or switching up dishes more frequently. At a shared-small-plates place, it's nice to be surprised. And while I liked the buns and hand rolls, none wowed me; I felt they were a missed opportunity for some flavor fun.
I wish the desserts grabbed me more, too. I went bonkers for a terrarium filled with panna cotta and a Thai spin on strawberry shortcake; a bit less so for the one that recently replaced it, filled with crème fraîche panna cotta, mini-mochi cakes and kaffir-lime-scented blueberry compote. A warm pear nabe left me cold, though I enjoyed a trio of well-made ice creams in spumoni-inspired flavors.
But I'm splitting hairs, as there's so much to love about Top Knot.
Crazy rolls? Who needs 'em?!
Top Knot (4 stars)
Price: $$$ (starters, hand rolls, snacks, buns and vegetable dishes $7 to 17; meats and fish $16.50 to $60; desserts $9; brunch dishes $7 to $17)
Service: Warm, efficient and super professional
Ambience: A vibrant, casual, colorful, buzzy dining room with plenty of good tables, a long banquette along the front windows and comfortable booths
Noise level: Very noisy, though not among the worst in town. Conversations among parties of four seem most manageable in a booth in back.
Location: 2817 Maple Ave., Dallas; 214-855-1354; topknotdallas.com
Hours: Dinner Sunday-Thursday 5 to 11 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5 p.m. to midnight; brunch Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Saturday brunch service is planned beginning April 30.
Reservations: Accepted only for parties of six or more
Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar. A one-page drinks list offers an excellent selection of craft beer on tap, six sakes and wines that work well with the Asian flavors. The sakes and wines are fairly pricey; 14 are offered by the glass as well as the bottle.
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor
Average dinner per person
$ -- $14 and under
$$ -- $15 to $30
$$$ -- $31 to $50
$$$$ -- More than $50