IN MY 31 YEARS AS A RESTAURANT REVIEWER, I’ve never seen this before: The wives of two of the most famous chefs in Dallas have gotten together and opened their own restaurant. No, they’re not cooking, but they are definitely running the show, and, as might be expected given the star power of their names, their place has been packed since day one.
To get the important stuff out of the way first, the restaurant is named Shinsei and the concept is pan-Asian, with a menu that offers both sushi and a panoply of entrées that range the Orient from Japan to Thailand. But if you’re a restaurant groupie like me, you’ll be equally fascinated to know that the missuses in question are Lynae Fearing and Tracy Rathbun, the spouses, respectively, of Dean Fearing (he’s the former executive chef of the Mansion on Turtle Creek and chef-elect of the new Ritz-Carlton restaurant, to be named simply Fearing’s, which will open next year) and Kent Rathbun (he is el jefe and owner of classy Abacus and Jasper’s). Interestingly, yet another woman is in charge of the kitchen, 28-year-old Casey Thompson, who honed her chops at the Mansion under the tutelage of Dean.
If I had to choose one dish that summed up Shinsei’s approach, it would be the excellent Surf and Turf Tataki. The surf part consists of sushi-grade ahi tuna; the turf is Kobe beef. The duo arrives at the table as a neat row of square-cut slices that have been rolled in sesame seeds, barely seared (you’d better like raw food), and schmoozled with ponzu sauce—that zippy blend of soy, rice wine vinegar, and citrus juice. The combo totally won me over.
On the other hand, there’s quite a bit on the menu that is just plain fun, like the crowd-pleasing coconut-and-chicken jalapeño poppers. Yes, these crunchy, torpedo-shaped fried and stuffed chiles are nothing but glorified bar food, and yes, the accompanying Thai-style yellow curry dipping sauce is sugary sweet, but I defy anyone to leave a morsel on the plate. I certainly didn’t.
But the best thing I tried was an appetizer that’s also on the sushi list: Elvis’s Tuna Tartare. Elvis, you say? That would be head sushi chef Shuji Sugawara, the handsome dude with the impeccable pompadour who’s a fusion fashion plate all by himself. As for his signature appetizer, it is an inspired combination of chopped ahi tuna, jalapeño, and cucumber, all tossed with sesame oil and sesame seeds. Served on a big, crisp, round wonton wrapper, the whole thing looks like nothing so much as an Asian chalupa. I want one right now.
Aside from the mesmerizing Elvis, there are plenty of visual distractions at Shinsei. The walls are painted today’s de rigueur chocolate brown, the floors are multicolored slate, and the decorative accents invoke every shade of green from grass to glass. (When no one is watching, I intend to filch one of the fabulous art-glass platters arrayed on the wall like a flotilla of lily pads.)
No review of Shinsei would be complete, however, without asking the $64,000 question: Are the owners’ hubbies dispensing advice? Well, duh. “Absolutely,” says Tracy. “Kent and Dean were heavily involved with Casey in all the creative decisions.” But since the restaurant has opened, are they keeping their hands off? “Now,” she concedes, “they just come in to eat.”