Conversations about the new (three months old) Asian restaurant in downtown Clayton go something like this:
"Have you been to Sekisui Pacific Rim?"
"You mean Sekisui on South Grand?"
"No, Sekisui Pacific Rim in Clayton."
"No. Are they related?"
Kind of like roll call on the first day of school: "Are you Matt Martelli's little sister?" How a kid reacts to such a question reveals all Teach needs to know. A sullen "yes" means the younger sib is the slacker in the family, doomed to be reminded all semester long how she doesn't live up to the die cast by big bro, while a smiley and confident reply makes it clear the baby's the brainiac. (Sorry, Matt, but you know I was.)
Sekisui Pacific Rim, which is indeed the spawn of the same chain that begat just-plain Sekisui, clearly refuses to shy behind the rep blazed by the older Sekisui. It isn't a clone of the former (an unfussy, storefront sushi-and-tempura joint) or even a fraternal twin. It's more like a younger stepsibling eager to extra-credit and gold-star-sticker its way out from under big brother's shadow.
Sekisui and Sekisui Pacific Rim share a daddy: Jimmy Ishii, a SLU grad who in 1989 founded the very first Sekisui in Memphis. He's produced sixteen subsequent offspring, scattered throughout the South, from New Orleans to Little Rock, Birmingham to Chattanooga. With each new outpost, Ishii buddies up with a different local operating partner and chef, who writes and executes the establishment's individual menu. Very individual menu: SPR St. Louis' protracted bill of fare -- designed by chef/co-owner Thom Chantharasy and encompassing 22 soups, salads and appetizers, 11 dinner entrées, 7 lunch sandwiches, 28 varieties of nigiri and 19 specialty sushi rolls -- looks nothing like Sekisui's menu and bears only a passing resemblance to the one at SPR Memphis, the first and only other SPR in the Sekisui family.
Chantharasy worked at the Sekisui Pacific Rim in Memphis, which is managed by his sister, Lynn Chantharasy. So maybe the differing menus are literally due to sibling rivalry, just as it might be a healthy amount of Dad-likes-you-best competitiveness that caused a cute, extroverted waiter at the Clayton Sekisui Pacific Rim to proclaim at dinner, "We have the best sushi in St. Louis." Not true: That title still belongs to Sekisui, where the fish is plumper and prettier than anywhere else around. Though it's been a while since my last visit, I still vividly remember those luscious portions of salmon and tuna nigiri, poised come-hither-like upon downy beds of rice. SPR's sushi portions are teeny by comparison, and while they're certainly soft and sweet, they're buttressed by a disproportionate amount of rice. Chantharasy does deserve credit for his playful sushi menu -- a crawdaddy roll, a vegetarian "Gandhi" roll -- which he manages to pull off without seeming ridiculous (so many new sushi lounges fall flat on their nori in this regard). The standard salmon roll here is heightened by itsy bits of scallion, adding a mischievous little grace note, while a bold sprinkling of hot sauce on a creation like the Thai octopus roll spices up the mild octopus meat while nicely countering the avocado's coolness.
But let Sekisui Pacific Rim leave the sushi-bar expertise to its forebear. Where Chantharasy's new restaurant excels -- and not just in comparison to Sekisui -- is at the stove.
No matter what kind of cuisine a restaurant may sling, it's saying something when even the basic salad makes you coo. A smattering of walnuts and a splash of raspberry vinaigrette are all that dress these field greens, yet somehow the combo imparts a pungent ripe-tart-bitter flavor that makes you want to horde and share at the same time. There's more vinegary goodness going on in the seaweed salad, nicely tweaked with some cuke slices. All that acidity pushes its luck in the conch salad, a bracing array of mango, jicama, tendrils of cucumber noodles, ponzu and a couple of big slices of snail. A small yet towering achievement among the appetizers (which bear tempting names like "pork and truffle egg rolls," "dumplings with Fuji apple sauce," "naked oysters and wasabi Caesar") is the "ocean pyramid," a layered structure of tuna, salmon, yellowtail and tobiko drizzled with a spicy sesame vinaigrette. Despite its angular appearance and the dressing (which isn't as tart here as it is on the salads), this dish comes off like a pillow of plentiful fish.
Fish also tower over the roster of entrées. There are cuts of pan-roasted duck and chicken breast, as well as a rack of lamb. And they're fine: The chicken is served with a poached-pear teriyaki but comes off more prosaically, like sweet-and-sour, while the lamb is treated to a Cointreau demi-glace that doesn't make its presence felt.
But forget those and go for the seafood. Seared halibut, imbued with the delicate firmness of scallops, is served on a bed of Thai red curry rice that resembles a scrumptious helping of risotto. An oversize serving of wasabi- and Gorgonzola-flavored fettuccine tastes as yowza as it sounds: a dense, strangely appealing mixture upon which rests a portion of shellfish big enough to comprise a fisherman's catch of the day, including monster-size shrimp and clams. The nine-spice-seared salmon was overdone, but its heat was perfectly offset by its bed of sautéed Asian greens, which provided a terrific watery counterpoint to the spiced fish's flavor.
Sekisui Pacific Rim strives for a lounge-loft ambiance that it doesn't quite pull off. Housed in what was originally downtown Clayton's Famous-Barr, the space was awkwardly carved into an eatery a few dead restaurants ago. The ceilings are high and the ductwork is exposed, and pieces of modish artwork are hung here and there along the stark white walls. There's even a corner near the bar where three humongous black bean bags seemingly encourage boozy lolling-about, and a swanky cocktail menu to match: more than 30 concoctions that, like the signature sushi items, refrain from getting full-on cutesy; even a drink as silly-sounding as Barrel Full of Monkeys (hazelnut and banana liqueurs, crème de cacao, orange juice and cream) tastes mature and stiff, while the wasabitini takes its cue from a bloody mary and adds just a whiff of knock-you-down wasabi. But the overall character of the place still feels a bit staid and hushed.
So maybe the new kid could stand to play up its youthfulness some more. But when it comes to the food, Sekisui Pacific Rim is clearly an all-star overachiever.