by Justin Fox Burks
Pleasing to the palate is Do's kobe beef noodle bowl.
I think I’m spending too much time on Facebook. Lately, I prefer old friends to new ones, heading to restaurants where I can rekindle relationships. Even more crazy, when I walk in the door, I start thinking in networking lingo, as in these notes, scribbled down on a recent visit to Do Sushi and Lounge, a capricious standout in Cooper-Young’s restaurant row:
Hometown: MemphisStatus: married to the Beauty ShopFavorites: street food, Harajuku, sale room at AnthropologieFriends: way more than mePhilosophy: for those who think young
My husband hit on that last description when he looked around and said, “We’re the oldest people in here.” That wasn’t entirely true (there were other oldsters at the bar), but Do does have an upbeat, anything-is-possible feel, especially on a busy Friday night at the restaurant’s community table, where we were sitting.
Since other groups had grabbed the ends of the long plank table, we settled in near the middle. My husband loved that he could leave his Android by his plate and nobody except me minded the beeping. I liked eavesdropping on the twenty-somethings nearby and watching the glorious parade of cocktails and sushi pass by my seat, making our choices for dinner even more difficult to make.
But first things first. We wanted sake, but were befuddled by the 10 different choices. (Sake experts we are not.) So we went with our server’s recommendation: Gekkeikan Black & Gold, a smooth, dry sake that tasted a little like melon.
Ready to order, we studied the menu, a fusion mix that skews toward Japan with big, bold flavors typical of Karen Carrier’s other restaurants, Mollie Fontaine on Adams Avenue downtown and the Beauty Shop, Do’s sister restaurant next door. Carrier opened the Beauty Shop in 2003, along with the Beauty Shop General Store, where Do is now located. “Nobody got it,” Carrier recalled, describing her quirky retail assortment of vintage bikes, designed hats, and dinners-to-go. “I closed it six months later.”
Do, meaning “a path to,” opened soon after, turning an electric fryer and grill into a makeshift line for tempura and hot sushi. These days, Do and the Beauty Shop share a more sophisticated kitchen, and sushi chef Mindy Son spins out a different spring roll, sushi roll, and bento box every day, based on seasonal produce and her own creative whims. “I like taking familiar dishes and turning them into sushi,” Son said to me later. “I’ve been inspired by Philly cheese steaks, and I’ve even made a roll out of fried Spam.”
For our visit, Son’s daily blackboard specials were less wacky, but still wonderful. We skipped the bento (a traditional Japanese trio of fish, rice, and vegetables) for a sweet shrimp spring roll, a simple but lovely combination of barbecue shrimp, cabbage, romaine, and lime-vinegar slaw. We also ordered the fiesta roll, a show-stopper for my meat-centric husband. Priced at $10, the fiesta was enough to share: seared beef, onion, avocado, cucumber, crawfish, tortilla chips, and veggies.
One of the many things I like about Do is how friendly its sushi menu is to folks who, well, don’t like sushi. Purists can enjoy plenty of nigiri, but throughout the menu, combinations for maki (rolls) and te maki (hand rolls) use familiar ingredients to soften the surprise of unfamiliar tastes.
Like coconut shrimp? Try it fried crispy and packed into a seaweed cone with scallions, pickled veggies, mango ketchup, and mizuna — a Japanese green similar to arugula. Do you think bacon makes everything taste better? Then don’t miss Andre, my new BFF. Combined with bacon, cilantro, and jalapeño Tabasco, the roll’s marshmallow white centerpiece — a type of escolar called walu — is a rich and buttery surprise.
While sushi is a mainstay of Do’s menu, it has plenty of other options and, on our next visit, we tried a few.
For starters, we toasted our meal with Do martinis, a mix of sake, vodka, orange, and raspberry that tastes like a two-flavor popsicle for adults. Next, we ordered new-style beef sashimi and were delighted with the meat’s delicate, marbled texture and artful plating: five slices of pink tenderloin seared only on the edges, garnished with grated ginger, chopped scallions, a little garlic, and fried shiitakes. When I popped the first slice of tenderloin in my mouth, I flashed to a girlhood memory of my dad and me, salting raw hamburger and eating it with glee. We liked the beef sashimi so much that we got into a fork fight trying to fish the last bits of shiitake out of Do’s unique house-made ponzu.
For our main course, we both ordered curry noodle bowls: Kobe beef for my husband and vegetarian for me. Both soups start with the same broth, a Thai-inspired combo of Panang curry, coconut milk, palm sugar, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, cream, and lots of water.
“We wanted the bowls to be more brothy than regular curry to go with the noodles,” explains Do manager Lena Jones, who developed the recipes with Carrier after discovering fast-food noodle bars in Bangkok. The collaboration led to Noodle Doodle Do, a lunch-only restaurant located inside Do, and named in 2009 by Bon Appetit as one of the top 10 noodle bars in the country.
Despite local and national praise, midday business in the Cooper-Young neighborhood was slow, and Noodle Doodle Do closed after Thanksgiving. Fortunately, many of the noodle bowls moved to Do’s evening menu, include the Kobe beef, a sweet and tangy standout topped with ground peanuts and crispy egg noodles.
While the service for our first dinner was a tad spotty, on a Wednesday night a week or so later, we couldn't have been more pleased. Our server was well informed about cocktails and food, plus she could apparently read my mind. When I couldn’t decide between the seasonal gelatos, she brought me samples: sweet potato spiked with bourbon, and eggnog. When I still hemmed and hawed, she said, “I think I’m hearing eggnog.” Coupled with a scoop of vanilla, dessert, like the rest of our meal, was exactly right.