When the doors opened for Nikkei, the newest venture from Milk Shake Concepts, similarities to their Deep Ellum restaurant, Stirr, were distinguishable although revealing more contrast than comparison. The formula is systematic as both locations offer small plates in exuberant settings that become more a scene to be seen than a dining destination. Milk Shake’s focus on rooftop bars and unadulterated views of Dallas have become attractions on their own with modish crowds. Within the current scope of national dining trends, Dallas has not been immune to the club-restaurant collaboration that beckons patrons with disposable bank accounts.
A local alternative news outlet published a prematurely biased article which read more pretentious than their adherent issue with the pretentiousness of these concepts. Their issue with such places conjured a frivolous proclamation that the Dallas dining scene was spiraling out of control with every club-restaurant opening; assuming menus were merely afterthoughts to the bottle service crowd. If anything, it reflects an evolving and more adventurous culinary scene that introduces diners to foreign tastes.
Ascending the stairs of Nikkei, the stage is slowly being set for the main attraction. Interior walls exhibit colorful Asian art that interact with hushed jazzy neon lighting where the melodic trumpet of Miles Davis would play as well over the speakers as the current top 40 list. A sleek bar design commands attention opposite of the main dining area that is destined to become full of imbibers once the cover of darkness has settled.
The cuisine is one that emulates heavy Japanese influence with a hat tip to Peruvian flavors. Nikkei is a Japanese term used to describe their civilians’ emigration from their homeland that possesses a transcending lineage of multi-generational bloodlines across the world. The Nikkei grew from a self-forged heritage due to the elasticity of the people, meaning each settlement is unique. Most retained certain Japanese customs while creating new ones through assimilation within other countries. With this in mind, Chef Nick Harrison’s carefully crafted menu pays homage to the Nikkei.
Served along the subtle sweet tones of a plum sauce with a mild Peruvian pepper is a chicken seasoned with fermented koji rice before a deep fried baptism and reemergence as karaage chicken. For the hesitate eater, this Japanese fried chicken may be a welcome starter, or comenzar in Spanish. The evenly crisp duck confit need only a twist of the fork to separate meat from bone. Marinating in the Peruvian anticucho street food-style, the cooked meat gathers flavor from aji amarillo and cilantro with sweet vinegary nanban sauce ensuring repeated tastes of this composition.
Plates of shareable portions are the playing card for Nikkei and daily, fresh delivered seafood is their main conduit for assurance. The diced confit tomato and serrano decorated truffled Hamachi crudo is a welcomed and equally satisfying lighter alternative to the heavier textured chicken and duck. Harrison explained, “While Hamachi is a classic Japanese fish to serve, the confit tomato is a Peruvian recipe using Dende, which is a red palm oil. Also it’s a ‘tiradito’ method of cutting the fish which is more of a straight, through the grain, slice of fish as opposed to the Japanese ‘sashimi’ cut.”
Tiradito surfaces again on the menu with the scallops.
“This dish is 99% Peruvian,” says Harrison. “Tiraditos are huge in Peru. Thinly sliced scallops, leche de tigre (the acidic dressing poured over) is a Peruvian staple. We cut it with a bit of shoyu for a nice fermented umami flavor.”
A more unique offering is the bowl of thinly cut somen noodles that come with black caviar peppered on top and a shallow pool of uni butter underneath waiting patiently for dispersal. West Coast uni (an edible part of a sea urchin) from Santa Barbara reminds of ocean waters, but tangled in buttery somen it calms the briny flavor that may be an acquired taste for some. For those who enjoy this, the delicacy is rewarding. The heavy leaning Latin camarones moqueca ensure supple tiger shrimp remain relevant in a bowl of engaging flavors. Coconut and a tomato puree, along with peppers and coriander, could have passed as an Asian version of shrimp and grits having sushi rice in lieu of grits.
As with most restaurants who display flavors of Japan; rolls, sushi, and sashimi, will often play a dominate role on the menu. And any time raw fish is offered on a menu, higher prices should be expected. Although the happy hour menu offers reasonably priced rolls, the regular menu skirts the edge of moderate and excessively priced. The most expensive roll listed is one that captures the essence of Nikkei with evenly combined Japanese and Peruvian influence. The Tokyo Limeno roll borrows its name from each country’s capital cities, Tokyo, Japan, and Lima, Peru. Blue fin tuna and shrimp ceviche is draped on top of tightly rolled sticky rice and completed with tiny eggs called tobiko, avocado, and citrusy spiced leche de tigre.
One recommended cocktail is their namesake version of a margarita. The Nikkei Margarita takes its cue from a popular brandy in Peru known as pisco. The liquor’s title may have originated from the Peruvian town of the same name which was imperative in the importing of viticulture products during the colonial period. Developed by Spanish settlers who distilled the fermented grape juice in a high-proof spirit, this drink became a welcomed variation to the brandy for which they were familiar and offers immense versatility based upon grape selection and methodology. Nikkei incorporates the different styles in several other drink offerings.
A concept like Nikkei isn’t easy. Marrying complex and distinct flavors from two countries that could not be any more different than each other takes time. Harrison understands this. “We’re always going to tweak the menu. Perfecting this type of cuisine doesn’t happen overnight or come easy to someone who has traveled and researched their respective dishes. It will always evolve as we learn along the way.”