There was nothing banal, though, about the taupe strands that Teiichi "Teach" Sakurai, Tei-An's chef-owner, crafts daily. They had life force. As with the differences in fresh and dried Italian pastas, Sakurai's handiwork sidestepped the brittle or waterlogged textures that often plague packaged soba. These briefly resisted against the teeth before yielding their flavor, faint but pleasing with buckwheat's distinct, roasty earthiness. A turquoise ceramic cup alongside held a dipping sauce of dashi and keishi (soy sauce, mirin, and sugar) simmered with duck meat and skin. I dunked and swished tangles of noodles, slurped, and repeated. When the last noodle disappeared, a server rushed over to pour hot soba cooking water into the cup to create a few sips of liquid umami.
I consider him one of the country's outstanding and largely unsung Japanese chefs.
If Dallas doesn't rank as one of the country's great bastions of Asian cuisines, North Texas food lovers nonetheless know that they have something special in Sakurai. I lived in Dallas when he opened Tei-An in 2008; I consider him one of the country's outstanding and — outside the city — largely unsung Japanese chefs. A native of Tokyo, Sakurai brought Dallas its first true-minded sushi bar with Teppo in 1995, and soon after introduced Japanese-style grilling (not the Americanized clowning where cooks juggle knives) at Tei Tei Robata Bar.
Some Japanese chefs famously devote their career to perfecting one dish or genre. Sakurai's driving curiosity spurred him last decade to sell both businesses to employees and devote himself to soba, a famously querulous dough (with its ratio of eighty-percent buckwheat and twenty-percent wheat) to form and cut. In preparation for launching Tei An, one of the anchors in the One Arts District complex near downtown, Sakurai returned briefly to his hometown to study at the Tsukiji Soba Academy. In keeping with the ritual around eating soba, he designed a sanctuary of a restaurant: calm lines, grainy woods, and a rock garden with a trickling fountain in the center of the prominent soba bar. (A window behind the bar looks into the room where Sakurai makes the noodles.) A separate bar area in the front caters to a rowdier crowd.
Not that one shouldn't be imbibing. Sakurai gave an instructive quote when I wrote about Tei An for the Dallas Morning News: "When I was young, my grandfather told me over and over, ‘Teiichi, never drink sake at a sushi bar. Sake is for drinking at soba houses. Drink sake and enjoy appetizers first, and then, at the very end of the meal, enjoy the soba.'" Heed grandpa's words. There are sakes here that meet every budget and taste, and the staff, many of whom have been with Sakurai since the restaurant opened, are skilled guides.
In the six years since Tei An launched, its menu has grown three-fold to accommodate diverse tastes. Look for the purest expressions of Japanese cooking, like a salad of fluttery white seaweed, cucumbers, and carrots dressed in white vinegar, or cubes of silky-crisp tofu coated in buckwheat flour and deep-fried. Specials might include smoked salmon collar or a buckwheat version of okonomiyaki, a pancake filled with vegetables and seafood. The specials also wade into Sakurai's cross-cultural whimsies, like caviar nigiri or crab and uni risotto served in the crab's hollow shell. Though I prefer the more strictly Japanese dishes, these adjuncts are undeniably delicious.
I'm definitely less inclined toward the soba variations sauced in riffs on carbonara or Bolognese. Sakurai views them as gateway pleasures for the uninitiated. My hope is that diners will come to appreciate the soba in its sublime purity, paired with dipping sauces like black sesame or matched with greaseless tempura for stouter appetites.
To best understand Sakurai's mastery, call ahead to request the seven-course, $100 omakase, built around a gamut of techniques. My recent meal began with sashimi and then custardy, saffron-hued egg, steamed with dashi, returned to its shell, and topped with one sliver of musky black truffle. Next, two exquisite seasonal treats: tempura of woodsy matsutake mushrooms, which grow wild around white or red pines in Japan. They sat in a crackly cluster alongside a small bowl of gohan, rice flavored with the matsutakes. Now something grilled: sanma mackerel. Sakurai appeared from the kitchen to tell us how these fish swim down from northern Japan in the fall and are caught off the waters of the central Chiba prefecture. If the fish swim too far south, Sakurai said, they lose too much fat and aren't as luscious.
Before the ice sculpture soba finale, there was one more delicacy: A5 wagyu beef, from the Miyazaki prefecture along the southeastern coast of Kyushu island, so marbled in even patterns of pink meat and white fat that it looked more like a dress print than dinner. A staffer seared a few slices for each for us on a hot stone. After the soba there was a gentle denouement with dorayaki, a spongy pancake filled with sweetened red bean paste. I felt deeply and precisely sated.
Now that I've enumerated Tei-An's singular qualities, it's probably time to mention that the place also serves what many regard as the finest bowl of tonkotsu ramen in Dallas — the broth textbook milky, the chashu pork sweet, saline, and limpid. Also: Sakurai is opening a ramen bar called Ten in early 2015. It'll be a smash, no doubt. But when the ramen carousers need repose, the temple of soba will be waiting.
Restaurant Editor Bill Addison is traveling to chronicle what's happening in America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back in January to find out which restaurants made the cut.
Photos: Bill Addison