School, Lexington's innovative Franco-Japanese restaurant, is giving diners a graduate-level course in Japan's fusion response to the post-modern culinary era.
The ambience is minimalist and cool, with wasabi-colored walls. The music refuses to be mainstream.
But most of all, there is an inspired blending of cuisines. Filet mignon in a madeira wine sauce shows up alongside noodles and rice bowls, and sometimes the two countries meet in such hybrids as lamb chops with miso, basil and sesame seeds ($30). Peppercorns might appear as a companion to julienne of shiso leaves over eel ($15).
School is the ideal place for the gastronomically bored to get reinspired while bringing along friends who prefer fried chicken ($5 for an appetizer) or shrimp breaded with panko ($6).
I'm jazzed to see sweetbreads ($15) on the same menu with luscious curry udon ($12), especially when the former is topped with sautéed foie gras and a light yet rich marsala sauce ($15).
It's been a while since I've had nameko mushrooms, the slippery little buttons that add a fun mouth-buzz to deep-fried tofu in sesame oil ($6). There is a duck tartare ($12) that riffs off the classic with capers and citrus notes.
All the salads are wonderful, too. School's chef salad ($12) is made elegant with prosciutto and fontina but turned slightly Japanese with breaded quail eggs. They also do a mean shrimp salad topped with surimi (faux crab) and small grilled ebi (sweet shrimp) with mixed greens tossed in a creamy vinaigrette ($12). And definitely sample the Japanese salads, oceany hijiki ($4) — seaweed and shredded carrots — or kinpira gobo ($4) — more carrots but this time with earthy burdock; both come seasoned with soy sauce, mirin and sesame oil.
A daunting task might be choosing what to order from the four pages of French and Japanese dishes, a list of about 50 sushi items, and the ever-changing daily specials that include French desserts.
Another first for Lexington is the "culinary cocktail" concept. Fruit juices are freshly squeezed at School's beautiful bar, a backlit still-life. Many of the mixers for top-quality spirits have anti-oxidant properties — why not drink your blueberries, especially when they come juiced into a martini glass and garnished with chocolate on a toothpick? It sounds offbeat, but we need more of that.
At $12 a pop, drinks are expensive, but anything gourmet and hand-crafted is usually pricier. There also is an extensive selection of less-costly Japanese beers, ales, shochu and sake, as well as wines by the glass.
But the main attraction at School is most certainly kaiten-zushi, a "sushi-go-round" that delivers sushi, priced on color-coded plates at $2.75 to $6, to the bar and several booths via conveyor belt. A ginger pot, a little jar of wasabi and plenty of soy sauce are on every table, so there is no need to go hungry while waiting for menu orders. Just select a roll — from a simple California ($2.75) to an elaborate fire scallop with spicy sriracha sauce and a dusting of bonito flakes ($5) and everything in between — off the shiny, temperature-controlled slinky snaking past you to ambient techno sounds.
My only gripe is on-the-job training. Whether from the bar, at the booth or behind the sushi counter, diners expect consistency, and the apprenticeship model here is hit-or-miss. For instance, one evening our server was being shadowed by a trainee. One of the sushi chefs is just learning the ropes, and another time I had a lemon southside cocktail that was so sludgy, a beginner must have made it.
That said, I like this place so much that I am willing to overlook the occasional service gaffe, poorly mixed cocktail (which I am never shy about sending back) or slightly rustic appearance of sushi created by novices.
If you want an education in what great food and contemporary restaurant design are supposed to look like, go to School.
A light sushi meal without drinks can cost as little as $10 a person, but you can run up a dinner tab to three figures with cocktails and wine.
Long live the problem of choice.