Fire and rice

Fresh flavors, welcoming atmosphere,
sea of grilled items keep Sushi Tao rolling along

By AMY CULBERTSON/ Star-Telegram food editor

The Cowboy Roll is topped with avocado, tuna and jalapeño rounds.

The Cowboy Roll is topped with avocado, tuna and jalapeño rounds.

Star-Telegram/Ron T. Ennis

The Hulen corridor is becoming quite the sushi strip;
if you live or shop in the area, you probably have a favorite.
Even if you do, you should give the new Sushi Tao a try.
Tucked away just off Hulen in an Overton Ridge strip bordering Hulen Mall,
Sushi Tao moved into the space vacated by Yum Yum pan-Asian restaurant.
Tastefully and sparingly decorated,
it sports a sleek little cocktail/sake bar along one wall (no liquor license yet, though)
and an attractive sushi bar, a study in black and red, along another.
A constellation of red pendant lights hangs over the center of the room.
Sushi Tao endeared itself to me very quickly,
not least because of the genuine warmth and sweetness of the folks who work there.
I'm not sure I have ever felt quite so personally welcome in a restaurant,
or so convinced that the staff wanted me to have a happy evening.
But what was on my table provided no small part of the appeal as well.
Yes, there's a big roster of pristine classic sashimi and sushi,
along with a couple dozen inventive varieties of more baroque "signature rolls."
But Sushi Tao's menu goes far beyond the usual teriyaki to
which sushi-disdainers are forced to default at many sushi spots.
Most intriguing are a dozen items cooked on the trendy robata grill and
served in portions for grazing.
The staff touts the grilled calamari with ginger sauce ($7),
but we went for the miso-grilled black cod.
The dish has become identified in America with sushi god Nobu Matsuhisa,
but at $9 here, it goes for half what you'd pay in the Dallas Nobu.
Ours, served stylishly on an oblong white plate, was perfectly cooked,
the white flesh just gelled into opacity, the soy-paste glaze adding sweetness.
From the kitchen appetizer section, we chose shrimp O'Dynamite ($8.95),
a generous tumble of bite-sized shrimp and
slices of shiitake mushroom glazed with a dark,
rich, slightly sweet barbecue-style sauce vibrating with red chiles.
From the sushi-bar appetizer section came salmon ceviche.
Named "salmon special" here, it offers six generous
slices of beautifully fresh raw salmon,
each topped with a lozenge of musky-sweet mango,
an ephemerally thin slice of jalapeño and a curl of cilantro,
all splashed with a beguilingly tart citric sauce ($10.95).
We had to try one of the signature sushi rolls,
and our servers recommended the Cowboy Roll ($10.95).
Each precisely cut slice revealed a center of chopped tuna mixed with
miniscule bits of scallion and tempura flakes for crunch,
enclosed in a layer of sushi rice, with avocado and tuna draped atop.
A delicate round of jalapeño perched jauntily on each slice.
As we were chatting with manager Suzie Mercer,
I mentioned my fondness for the coveted Japanese bar snack hamachi kama --
-- grilled yellowtail collar, the portion of the fish just behind the eyes.
The menu doesn't list it, but Mercer produced one from the kitchen.
I switched from chopsticks to fork to prod the rich,
succulent flesh from the bone and skin,
dipping it into a thin, deliciously tart ponzu vinegar sauce spangled with sesame seeds.
If you like rich, strongly flavored fish,
it's worth checking to see if the kitchen has any of this.
After my indulgence, dessert was out of the question,
but we promised to try the Japanese mochi ice cream next time.
There's no question that we will return. Sushi Tao has stolen our hearts --
-- and one of us doesn't even really like sushi.

Sushi TAO

4954 Overton Ridge Blvd.
Fort Worth

Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.- 3 p.m. Monday-Saturday;
dinner 3-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday,
3- 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday,
12p.m-9:30 p.m. Sunday.

Cuisine: Japanese

Essentials: Major credit cards; smoke-free; wheelchair-accessible.

Entree cost:
$9-$21.95 for full entree with soup or salad;
robata items $2-$9; sushi rolls $4-$13.95.
Signature dishes: Tao roll (lobster, crab, greens, flying fish roe, avocado, mango, $12.95);
robata-grilled calamari with ginger sauce ($7).
Recommended for: Sushi aficionados and the sushi-hesitant alike.
Good to know: Ask if there are any off-menu specials, such as hamachi kama.
Amy Culbertson is the Star-Telegram food editor, 817-390-7421.