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Restaurant Reviews

Here’s Your Guide to Downtown Dallas’ New Near-Identical Omakase Spots

Sushi | Bar and Sushi By Scratch were founded by the same chef in the same city, cost the same amount, and serve many of the same dishes.
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A chef cooks sushi at Sushi Bar with vigorous use of a blowtorch. Brian Reinhart

Two rival sushi bars opened in Dallas in December, bringing a new glitz to our premium omakase scene. But Sushi | Bar and Sushi By Scratch are eerily similar. They were founded by the same chef, they are both hidden from public view, they cost the same, and they share several specialty dishes. Which should you choose? Why are there two of them? What is their rivalry like on the inside? And how do they compare to the omakase sushi tastings Dallas already had at Tatsu, Shoyo, and Namo?

I visited both newcomers in the same week, as a paying customer, to give you an honest inside look. If you just want to know where to eat, you can scroll to the bottom, but the whole story is a fun journey, so read on.

What’s the story with these two new restaurants?

Sushi | Bar and Sushi By Scratch were both developed by chef Phillip Frankland Lee. Lee started with Sushi | Bar, which he founded at Scratch Restaurant in California in 2017. Two more locations followed, in Montecito and Encino, and the fourth was a pop-up in Austin.

A representative for Lee says he sold the Austin location of Sushi | Bar to a private equity firm in December 2021 while he kept the other three in California. While the equity firm began expanding Sushi | Bar, Lee renamed the other three locations to Sushi By Scratch, which remained nearly identical; the terms of his sale said that he could operate the same kind of business, as long as it wasn’t near the Austin location.

Lee still runs Sushi By Scratch, while the company that operates Sushi | Bar does not currently employ an executive chef. Both groups are rapidly expanding across the country. Sushi | Bar is in Austin, Chicago, Miami Beach, and Dallas, while Sushi By Scratch has locations in Austin, Chicago, Miami, and Dallas—plus three more California cities, Montreal, and Seattle.

Both restaurants, like Shoyo and Tatsu, offer omakase tasting menus at fixed times each night. (At both newcomers, those times are 5, 7:15, and 9:30.) Customers reserve seats well in advance on Tock, then arrive 20 minutes early for their time slot to be greeted with a welcome drink. Sushi | Bar is located in a basement underneath the building that also houses Nick Badovinus restaurants Brass Ram and National Anthem. Sushi By Scratch is located inside a hotel suite on the eighth floor of the Adolphus Hotel.

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An appetizer—Spanish bluefin tuna and avocado mousse piped into a crispy nori cylinder, topped with roe—in the lounge at Sushi By Scratch. Brian Reinhart

Both restaurants present an Americanized version of the omakase experience. The music is louder. The meals start with pep-rally-style encouragement (actual Sushi | Bar quote: “Is everyone ready for some sushi?” “Yeah!” “That wasn’t loud enough. Is everyone ready for some sushi?!?!”) and long speeches explaining how an omakase meal works. Both restaurants ask guests to use their hands, not chopsticks. Both write every guest’s name on plaques in front of our seats. Both prominently feature sake flights. Both fix the menus to the back wall, so customers can follow along the 16 courses of sushi plus dessert. Both focus on sushi to the exclusion of cooked kitchen items. At both spots, the final four sushi pieces are a “premium row” of show-off items like wagyu beef and uni.

Both chefs point diners’ attention to details like the use of fresh wasabi, explain the difference between different cuts of tuna, and banter with customers. (Get ready for icebreaker questions like how long you’ve lived in Dallas, where you’re from, and where else you eat sushi.) Oh, and both cost $165 per person, plus tax and a fixed service charge, and you’ll be encouraged to tack on alcohol pairings for an additional $100 or more. Skipping the flights and sticking to beers, my two dinners for two still came out to nearly $1,000.

The food includes one or more wagyu cuts, and is often sourced from the same places. But here, at last, a real difference emerges between the two newcomers. At Tatsu, Namo, and the slightly less traditional Shoyo, the fish is seen as the star of each bite, and every technique applied to it is meant to shine a spotlight ever brighter on the quality, texture, and flavor of the fish. Added ingredients are carefully chosen: shiso leaf, wasabi, a soy glaze, hot mustard, citrus zest. This is also generally true of Sushi By Scratch, though there are flashes of truffle, slices of pineapple, and lots of fiery blowtorch.

At Sushi | Bar, however, the cooks go further to alter the fundamental taste of the fish. One of Sushi | Bar’s chefs repeatedly used the phrase “to enhance the fish” when describing additions: fruit jams, preserves, everything bagel seasonings, and miso foams. Whether or not you like Sushi | Bar depends on whether or not you think fish needs enhancing.

I try to say this neutrally, without judgment, so you can decide whether Sushi | Bar and Sushi By Scratch are for you. But I will say this: when you treat fish as the beginning, and then top it with items that create an amazing flavor combination, the result is revelatory and thrilling. If you top it with items that don’t create amazing flavors, you’re left wishing they had just served the darn fish.

OK, but what’s the real story? Why are there two restaurants?

After some prodding, representatives of the two restaurants offered a few new details and corrected some reporting that’s appeared elsewhere. Sushi | Bar says they initially scouted the Adolphus Hotel location years ago, before signing a lease in its current space instead. Lee’s representative says he approached the hotel several years ago while the Sushi | Bar Austin location was under his wing. The two parties appear to disagree about who initially planned the Adolphus location. Sushi | Bar was supposed to open a year ago; construction delays created the coincidence of the two places opening a week apart.

There has been a lawsuit between the two restaurants—a small one that settled quickly, according to federal court records. It concerned rights to artwork from an old Sushi | Bar photo shoot. Now the two businesses say they’re friendly and have mutual respect for each other.

I did hear a Sushi | Bar chef saying of Sushi By Scratch that “they do the same menu. We change it by season.” Then, five nights later, a Sushi By Scratch chef vehemently denied that charge and said he prefers to change the menu multiple times a week. One customer at Scratch referred to Bar as “that other sushi restaurant that we don’t talk about,” but he might have been a suck-up.

The Dallas Morning News had a headline saying Sushi | Bar is the “best sushi place in the country.” Is that true?

Ha! No. Don’t make me laugh. It’s not even the best sushi in Dallas.

That headline was a quote from the restaurant’s landlord. Both Sushi | Bar and Sushi By Scratch also tout endorsements from notorious podcaster Joe Rogan, whose sushi expertise is unexplained. Given his positions on public health issues, I don’t trust him on knowledge, generally. But, whether or not you agree with me about Rogan’s bloated ratio of words to thoughts, his endorsement means little either way. Just because the litter box doofus thinks this sushi is great, doesn’t mean it’s great—or bad.

Are the restaurants good?

Mostly, yes.

Sushi | Bar is a good time. You’ll gather first for your welcome drink—sparkling sake—in a sort of antechamber, at street level, in a barely-finished space that preserves much of the building’s industrial heritage. Eventually, an immaculately dressed manager with shockingly strong George Clooney vibes will announce that it’s dinnertime and lead the 10 guests downstairs.

In the tasting room, the chefs are friendly and attentive to food allergies or even simple aversions. The drinks list allows a huge range of experiences, from a $165 premium sake tasting to an $8 beer. Asahi Super Dry is, to my mind, the best drink to cleanse your palate between bites of sushi, but I also dug a wonderful glass of albariño.

Sushi | Bar’s best bites are really special. They included, on our visit, hirame (flounder) topped with a dab of Italian-style salsa verde, salmon glazed with a Vietnamese-inspired fish caramel and topped with garlic chips, a hamachi bite starring finger lime, and—very best saved for last—eel fried in bone marrow fat, then topped with even more bone marrow fat. It’s inauthentic indulgence in the very best way.

Note to Sushi | Bar: Getting dull rice for $165 makes me angry.

That same bone marrow eel bite is also on the menu at Sushi By Scratch, and it’s still good there. In general, though, Sushi By Scratch favors a more minimalist approach to its fish.

The restaurant makes its own yuzu kosho ferments and seasoned salts, but the chefs also prepare some fish simply, either to let the product shine or to serve as a palate cleanser between bigger-flavored species. I loved some more elaborate preparations, too, like albacore that had been aged with a splash of sake and topped with a frizzle of crispy onions. Escolar, a dumpy-looking white fish, also became a star, cross-hatched with a knife, hit with a blowtorch to bring out its fat, and topped with salmon roe and fresh wasabi.

The rest of the Sushi By Scratch experience is, however, hemmed in by its hotel room setting. You’ll have your welcome drink in a very dark candlelit room, dark to hide that it still very much looks like a 2003 hotel suite, complete with generic, bulky furniture. Limited storage means fewer drink options. As your meal wraps up, you’ll hear the doorbell ring when the next guests arrive to take your place—though our Scratch dinner ran more on time than our night at Bar.

Which Place Is Better?

Luckily, there is a clear answer to this! I wasn’t expecting two basically identical restaurants to be so different in terms of actual experience, but they are. For all the similarities we’ve piled up so far, there is a clear fundamental difference. One wins on food, while the other wins on everything else. Take your pick.

Sushi By Scratch offers better sushi across the board. Its flavors are better-balanced and its fish is allowed to shine. Also, its rice is good. I may be burying the lede here on Sushi | Bar, but Bar’s rice is forlorn, clearly an afterthought. Getting dull rice for $165 makes me angry. Scratch’s rice isn’t on the Tatsu level—nobody is—but at least they’re trying.

The By Scratch chefs also took more care in explaining fish anatomy and interesting facts about each species, and I appreciated the clever touch of a playlist of Japanese musicians borrowing from American jazz styles, an inverse of our Japanese food made by American chefs.

Sushi | Bar, meanwhile, offers significantly better drinking options. (Scratch has just one beer and three wine glasses.) Since Sushi | Bar has a finished, custom-made space, its bar is longer and more comfortable, its finishes shine a little brighter, it has more space for good booze, and it seats 10 guests. Scratch, awkwardly, only has room for nine right now, which means there is usually space for a solo diner.

If The Adolphus agrees to make the Scratch pop-up permanent in early 2024, Scratch expects to make more improvements to its hotel suite that could close the gap, including lengthening the bar to seat a tenth customer and improving on the lounge area’s dated furniture.

My preference for Scratch’s food is stronger because we had quality hiccups at Sushi | Bar. In addition to the rice problem, one of my guest’s nigiri pieces was missing its Fresno pepper topping, and my wagyu had a chunk of something inedible that I spat out.

And then there’s Sushi | Bar’s habit of piling stuff on top of stuff. I’ve mentioned the hits. But a fake-tasting “encapsulation of truffle” smothered the delicacy of raw scallop, and a “caramelized strawberry gochujang sauce with yuzu,” on top of Canadian spot prawn, was truly perplexing. That’s a lot of very strong flavors, all pulling in opposite directions. My guest described the result as “a little pukey tasting.” Even Miyazaki A5 wagyu beef wasn’t sacred: it came topped with rather too much “aerated miso brown butter foam.” By contrast, Sushi By Scratch’s buttery-rich raw Hokkaido scallop, topped with yuzu-fermented poblano pepper rather than “encapsulation of truffle,” was one of the most luxurious things I ate all year.

I also missed the small refinements of Tatsu. At Tatsu, servers bring a hot towel at the start of your meal, then replace it with a little wet-wipe-like napkin folded upright so you can dab your fingers on it between bites. At Sushi | Bar, servers bring a towel for you to wipe your hands—and then leave it for the rest of the night, because the towel is your napkin.

So the local guys are still the best?

Yes. For sheer attention to detail, quality of rice, and treatment of the fish itself, nobody’s knocking Tatsu off its perch any time soon. (His knife cuts are more absorbing to watch than any blowtorch.)

For a blend of great nigiri, great cooked items from the kitchen, and a stylish modern atmosphere, Shoyo remains my personal favorite omakase tasting.

Namo deserves praise here, too, especially because its tasting is available at lunch for a deep discount.

Where should I go for my fancy omakase tasting?

It depends on you. If you want a real-deal Japanese experience, where the focus is on the craft and the fish, where the chef is friendly and funny but obsessed with his work, where the atmosphere is somewhat quiet and reverent but the food deserves that focus, go to Tatsu or Namo.

If you prefer a more narrated explanation of your luxury experience, go to Sushi By Scratch.

If you like a more relaxed dinner party vibe, if you like lots of toppings on your sushi, or if you don’t notice the rice, Sushi | Bar is your play.

If you want a blend of the best traits of all those restaurants, head to Shoyo.

Another brand-new restaurant, Yujo, also serves high-end omakase meals, as does year-old Frisco spot Kinzo. I haven’t visited either yet, but will have a full report later this winter.

Sushi | Bar, 2111 Jackson St.

Sushi by Scratch, 1321 Commerce St., Inside of The Adolphus Hotel.

Update: This story has been updated to clarify the development of Sushi by Scratch and Sushi | Bar. It has also been updated with details about which concept initiated contact with The Adolphus Hotel.

Author

Brian Reinhart

Brian Reinhart

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Brian Reinhart became D Magazine's dining critic in 2022 after six years of writing about restaurants for the Dallas Observer and the Dallas Morning News.

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