Gambling on the viability of downtown Dallas remains a fool’s bet, at least when it comes to opening clubs and restaurants. But there’s something cheerfully invincible about the ambition behind Pandora, a new “Japanese-inspired, Asian-infused, with a touch of French” restaurant on Main Street.
It’s not a total risk. Pandora’s Asian cuisine fills an unoccupied niche downtown. And the restaurant has a prime location next to Purgatory, the buzzy four-story nightclub. The two share a cozy, symbiotic relationship. B.B. Cash, the philanthropist-entrepreneur, owns the property, while Taylor Nguyen, the restaurateur-club impresario behind Eight Lounge on Lower Greenville, owns the restaurant.
Fully committed to developing this little chunk of downtown on the border of Deep Ellum, the pair is already at work on a third entity just on the other side of Purgatory, a much-needed 24-hour diner called Hell’s Kitchen.
The aim at Pandora is grand, with a robata grill, sushi bar, and menu of expensive sakes, which can be ordered with dinner or in the plush lounge upstairs. The role model seems to be Tei Tei Robata Bar, the Japanese restaurant owned by Teiichi Sakurai. But Tei Tei sets a high standard that would be difficult for any restaurant to reach.
Roasted lamb, for example, had two thick double chops, magnificently presented, the bones interlaced and pointing skyward. But who cooked these things? Ordered medium rare, one came well done, the other extremely rare. The accompanying purple potato, softly mashed, lent a fine gourmet touch, as did an irresistible side of tender beets, cut into small wedges and lightly buttered.
Red snapper with cardamom forbidden rice came this close to getting it right. Infusing black “forbidden” rice with aromatic cardamom cleverly takes a cue from Indian cuisine. But the rice seemed undercooked, and the snapper lacked the firm body desired in a piece of grilled fish.
Appetizers included shooters, which have become a fad; pot stickers filled with mushrooms; and, most delectable of all, peppered scallops. The scallops were plump orbs, glistening and nicely crisped. Each was plopped onto a smear of taro mousse, an unexpectedly creamy and decadent purée of the Asian root that offered an excellent contrast to the slick, quivery texture of the scallops.
Of the sushi tried, the cooked surpassed the raw. A delicious “Texan” sushi roll contained cucumber and slivered beef, with rare bits and crackling edges, but the gummy condition of the seaweed revealed a novice’s hand. “Super-white” tuna, an especially pale and fatty cut of albacore, suffered the ultimate breach: fishy taste.
The robata operation may be effective for meats and fish, but robata-grilled vegetables were laughably overpriced. Add it up: two scrawny bangles of bell pepper, six paper-thin slices of squash, and three small button mushrooms for $8. For a handful of vegetables that couldn’t have cost more than 25 cents? Yes, they’d been charred, but who wants to spend $7.75 for char marks? Advice: add more veggies or 86 the dish.
Desserts were a little odd, as is often the case at Asian restaurants. Gingered mango with lychee tapioca, served in a martini glass, was a strange soup with tapioca nubs, mango purée, and bits of sweet, pineapple-like lychee. Chocolate mousse tort must’ve weighed 20 pounds. Was it chocolate-y? Oh boy, yes. But the thing was like a brick.
If the food’s not perfect, the space surely is. The room is a stunner. That no expense has been spared on design or materials is evident from the moment you step inside the stone-tiled entryway. A constellation of bamboo rods greets you at the door. A fountain scattered with smooth oval stones gurgles reassuringly by the hostess stand. Asian films play silently onto a screening wall, very Blade Runner-esque.
Warm woods, cool crackled-glass dividers, and bronze throw pillows make the space feel like an Asian spin on a lodge. The stylish staff matches the décor. Everyone seems to be under 30, and all seem to be pals or relatives of Nguyen. So the kitchen is not fully up to speed. But you can’t underestimate ambition. 2208 Main St. 214-651-8828. $$-$$$.