When a neighborhood restaurant has thrived for a decade or so, change can be risky. Remove a seemingly unpopular dish from the menu, and you’ll provoke the ire of regulars. However, in the realm of Asian fare three well-established dining retreats have found creative ways to freshen up old concepts.
Shinsei: A new kind of happy hour
The secluded upstairs lounge at Shinsei features a wall of windows that overlook Inwood Village. On a particularly wet afternoon in May, the sound of rain spattering on the rooftop fills the air. The newly designed room provides soothing shelter from the storm — and a beautiful view of it.
In here is where you’ll find Shinsei living up to its name, which in Japanese means “rebirth.”
For almost a decade our neighborhood’s highly rated Pan-Asian restaurant has quietly beckoned diners through its dark-brown and lime green façade for fresh sushi and inventive entrées. Even with two of Dallas’ biggest restaurant names behind it — Tracy Rathbun and Lynae Fearing — the owners know the value of new ideas.
“We still have to remain relevant,” Rathbun says.
But that doesn’t mean cramming the menu with bacon-themed dishes or whatever craze happens to be flooding the food scene.
“We’ve been here nine years,” she says, “and we thought, what can we do that’s fun and in keeping with our core mission? We don’t like to jump on a trend.”
The idea to launch a new kind of happy hour came all the way from the other side of the globe. On a trip to Milan, Italy, Rathbun and her husband Kent visited a hotel restaurant that served $24 cocktails but alongside beautifully prepared small bites that were complimentary.
Rathbun and Fearing merged this idea with the Japanese after-work happy hour known as “izakaya.” They remodeled the upstairs dining room into a relaxing lounge, complete with heavy, black curtains that can separate the room from the rest of the building, and Shinsei’s weeknight izakaya happy hour was born.
The drink prices aren’t as steep as those in Milan. Most of the signature cocktails cost $12, except for the Japanese whiskey, which tops out at $25 a glass.
The final and perhaps the most important piece of the puzzle came together with the hiring of Shinsei’s new executive chef, Jeramie Robison — the mind behind the izakaya menu. Robison worked with John Tesar at the Mansion at Turtle Creek. He recently left his gig as chef de cuisine at Uchi in Austin to come run Shinsei.
The izakaya menu, featuring small, shareable plates, is similar to a tasting menu for new items, which Robison already developing.
“That got my wheels turning,” he says. “This was the perfect opportunity to run with that.”
The menu changes daily. Diners will find dishes such as roasted pork belly with macerated strawberries and Japanese mint; fried beef tendons; and crispy chicken karaage. Some of the items either originate from or can turn into dishes served elsewhere in the restaurant. “It’s a fun way for us to play with the menu,” Rathbun says. —Emily Toman
Shinsei’s izakaya service runs 5-6:30 p.m. Weeknights only. Shinsei Restaurant
The Mercury: The next generation
When chef Chris Ward decided to breathe new life into his 17-year-old Preston Hollow dining institution, he tapped an old friend.
Roger Man ran the sushi program at Citizen, one of Ward’s former restaurants with the M Crowd group. For the past several years, Man has been serving up sushi recipes off The Mercury’s main menu of upscale American dishes, but it recently became official: Man now presides over a special menu in the restaurant’s newly remodeled sushi lounge.
Having spent 10 years as head sushi chef at the world-renowned Nobu, Man was ready for some creative freedom, and Ward was willing to give him the space to do pretty much whatever he wants.
“I want to create something of my own,” Man says.
The Mercury’s new sushi lounge took over a rarely used private dining room and is decidedly brighter and more energetic than the dark, low-key vibe felt in the main area of the restaurant. The Mercury typically draws an older demographic, and Ward’s hope is to attract a new generation of diners.
“I’d like to get some younger clientele in the restaurant,” he says, “and young people tend to like sushi.”
However, Ward and Man are taking a practical approach, focusing on classic rolls and sashimi plates rather than over-the-top items such as octopus — which ends up being just for show.
“It’s in the display case, and nobody ever orders it,” Ward says.
Man puts his twist on the most-loved dishes, including tai filet, a Japanese snapper with lemon juice, smoked sea salt and finely chopped shiso leaf; and yellowtail jalapeno with Serrano pepper, yuzu soy sauce, cilantro and garlic chili paste.
Aside from the menu itself, Man encourages diners to customize their orders. Just tell him what you want or what you like, and he’ll whip something up. —Emily Toman
The Mercury’s sushi lounge is open 5-10 p.m.Tuesday-Thursday and 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
Royal China: 41 years young
Our neighborhood has changed vastly since 1974. Businesses have opened and closed. Notable residents like Mary Kay Ash, Robert H. Dedman Sr. and Fred Baron, have passed away. Old buildings have been torn down and new apartments have been erected. But one thing has remained: Royal China.
The restaurant opened 41 years ago in Preston Royal Village. It was founded by the late Shu-Chang “Buck” Kao, a retired colonel for the Chinese army, and is now owned by his son, Kai-Chi “George” Kao. The menu is filled with traditional Chinese dishes, like moo shu pork, kung pao chicken and basa filet. In 2008, George added a dumpling bar that allows diners to watch as their meals are prepared. He also began serving hand pulled noodles, which are extremely popular but challenging to eat gracefully.
With warm lighting and red walls, Royal China is chic enough for a date but cozy enough for a family dinner. Family seems particularly important to George. He and his wife, April, live in our neighborhood and their two nephews also work at the restaurant. Last year, when it came time to hire an additional chef, he went with Wei-Gou Cai, the husband of one of the original “dumpling ladies.”
“He has been a chef in China for a long time,” George says of his new hire. “He easily has 30 to 40 years of experience.”
Cai updates the menu regularly. His newest creations include zho liu fish (white fish filet covered with goji berries) and hui gou rou (pork belly served with mushrooms, red peppers and fermented chili sauce.) Every few months, Cai revises his list of specialties, so patrons never get bored. Though the menu may evolve, Royal China’s location will stay the same.
“We love this neighborhood,” George says. “It’s a great neighborhood – absolutely. We have three generations of regulars.” —Elizabeth Barbee
6025 Royal Ln #201
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