Keiichi…Probably the Best Restaurant in Texas

Keiichi…Probably the Best Restaurant in Texas

By Rob Curran

There’s an old television commercial from the glory days of London’s advertising agencies. A man walks through an abandoned wing of a large corporate office, his lonesome footfalls echoing through the endless corridor. He’s trying to pinpoint a ringing telephone. Eventually, he lets himself into an office that has nothing in it but empty filing cabinets, a desk and the ringing telephone. He picks up the phone and quickly ascertains that the caller has dialed the wrong number. The man is about to leave the office when he blows the dust off a plaque on the desk: “Carlsberg, Complaints Department,” the plaque reads. Cut to the longtime slogan: “Carlsberg, probably the best lager in the world.”

Attempting to reserve a table at Keiichi, a mainstay of Denton cuisine for the last quarter of a century, is another lonesome telephonic encounter with greatness. The phone – no OpenTable reservations here – usually rings all the way to an answering machine. Chef/owner Keiichi Nagano tends to make the return call himself, speaking in his brisk Japanese-inflected English. When we first moved to Denton, Keiichi usually thumbed through his calendar for a month or so to find seating for a party of two. It was the kind of reservation around which you planned your work schedule rather than vice versa.

The last time I called was late February 2022 (I knew that he’d be in Japan in January for his annual vacation/research trip/ingredient acquisition mission). Keiichi said the first opening he had was March 24. “March 24th?” I asked, a surge of anticipation rushing through my innards like I’d just unscraped three dollar signs on a lottery ticket. “I’ll take it!” “No,” he said. “March 2024.”

To use another old British ad slogan, Keiichi is worth waiting for. It surely ranks among the best restaurants in Texas because of the sheer distinctiveness of the experience. It’s the Rothko chapel of Texas cuisine. The building itself is a curiosity. You’ve probably passed it a million times without recognizing it’s a restaurant. Situated a couple of blocks north of the square, the exterior looks like a low-volume undertaker’s or an understated personal-injury lawyer’s office. It’s a one-story office building with tinted windows and a large, wraparound parking lot. The only sign for the establishment is one of those car-dealership numbers – raised on a 15-foot high skewer like a steak on a smores stick.

Inside, there’s a traditional hibachi Japanese setup with about 8 high chairs around an L-shaped bar. There’s a booth that sits four or five people and a couple of other smaller tables and that’s it…the capacity of a single table at Olive Garden. Was this a John Maynard Keynes move – scarcity equals value? I once asked the man himself why he gave up opportunities to open much larger restaurants in Houston where his reputation as a chef was first established. Keiichi said he’d always liked Denton after a stint here at the beginning of his career. His eminent qualifications – this is a chef who studied Italian cuisine at a culinary institute in Milan, in addition to being steeped in Japanese arts – meant he could have cooked anywhere in the country after his years in Houston. There was almost nowhere else in the country, however, where he could buy his own premises. Going to Denton removed one of the greatest pressures on a restaurateur – making the rent.   

 Few shows – cooking or otherwise – can match Keiichi for spectacle. All in his chef whites and blues, he whips around the cleaver, green-tea-based cocktails and blue-flamed torch at thrilling speeds. Even if I never actually ate anything at Keiichi, I would feel like I got my money’s worth as a spectator. The swift meticulousness with which he rolls the layers of fish skin, rice, avocado and Saran Wrap are as riveting as watching a great ship being launched. Somehow, the chef keeps the banter going around the bar while sure-handedly unveiling the mysteries of Japanese cuisine. I would be down several fingers.

I’m no sushi expert but I defy one to find a more flavourful array of cold fish and fish-skin rolls than those that Keiichi plates so carefully on his station behind the bar. My personal favorites include the salmon skin roll, the snow-crab-and-avocado roll and the sashimi mix. As I’ve indicated, I haven’t been able to get into the place for four years, but I can still taste that fresh, firm sashimi.

The main courses reflect the unique experience of a man trained in both Japanese and Italian cooking who has lived in Texas for decades. The Japanese baby back ribs are ridiculous. I had to catch the crumbling meat in my mouth, doggy-style, as it crumbled off the bone on the way to my mouth. I had to be restrained from chewing through the bone to suck the marrow. Keiichi also makes a creamy mushroom pasta, a dish that combines the guilty pleasures of Olive Garden Alfredo with the eclectic mushroom selection of a farm-to-table joint, and one that convinced me he has several generations of Italian cooking heritage somewhere in the family tree.  

During the pandemic, Keiichi did bento boxes (probably the best Bento boxes in the world), and part of my perverse pandemic nostalgia is the memory of Keiichi on demand. I may never get into that tiny food theater again, but my memory never strays far from that bar-seat.  

Service also shapes a restaurant experience, of course. Perhaps due to my European upbringing, I favour a low-touch, unscripted approach to waiting tables. The banter with the chef/owner is always fresh, and the staff at Keiichi are always fun, chatty without ever hovering. 

A restaurant, even more so than a book or a movie, is a subjective experience. I brought to Keiichi my own range of experiences, my own sense of what the best way to enjoy a tasty meal is, and, once, I brought my now-deceased mum. I cannot tell you categorically that Keiichi is the best restaurant in Texas for you. But it probably is.