Kobe beef stars at ultrachic Mura

CorrespondentApril 14, 2006 

  • 4121-110 Main at North Hills St., in North Hills, Raleigh; 781-7887, www.muranorthhills.com. Cuisine: Japanese. Rating: 3 stars Prices: $$$$ Atmosphere: contemporary-chic East-meets-West. Service: eager to please, but still learning the ropes. Recommended: Firecracker shrimp, sushi, steaks (especially the Kobe rib-eye). Open: Lunch and dinner daily. Reservations: accepted. Other: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover; full bar (excellent sake selection); smoke-free; get a sitter; tatami rooms available for $27. The N&O's critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 4 stars: Extraordinary. 3 stars: Excellent. 2 stars: Good. 1 star: Fair. Zero stars: Poor For descriptions and reviews of more restaurants, use the searchable database at http://triangle.com/dining/.

The moment you step into the large front room that houses Mura's lounge and sushi bar, you find yourself mesmerized by the pinpoint sparkle of cobalt blue lights inset into the surface of a serpentine black granite bar. When your eyes break free of the spell, their sweep takes in a dramatic East-meets-West collage: liquor bottles silhouetted in aqua backlight, bamboo veneer sushi bar, sleek barstools of brushed chrome and black leather.

You pass a wall of shoji screens, behind which you can glimpse simply but elegantly furnished tatami rooms, on the way to the dining room. There, white tablecloths harmonize with Zenlike full moon nightscapes. Overhead, a grid of halogen lights twinkles like a rectilinear constellation. Clearly, Mura is not the sort of Japanese restaurant you drop into for a quick California roll and a Kirin Ichiban.

No, it's more of a Kobe beef and premium chilled sake kind of place. That's right, Mura is one of only a handful of restaurants in the Triangle to serve the legendary, ultra-luxurious Kobe beef, as well as a full entree portion of the prized blue fin tuna toro. By the time you read this, the menu -- an ambitious mix of traditional Japanese fare and contemporary Western-accented riffs on the cuisine -- will have grown to include sake-marinated duck breast and miso-rubbed char-grilled lamb chops.

Not that you wouldn't be welcome to order a California roll. After all, owner/chef Kee Muromoto also owns Asuka, a traditional Japanese restaurant in Morrisville, and isn't about to leave familiar favorites such as edamame, gyoza and shrimp tempura off the menu.

It's just that given Mura's chic style -- not to mention its location in the trendy new North Hills complex -- it isn't surprising that many are willing to splurge on Kobe carpaccio or wasabi-dressed lobster salad. Or that one of the most popular starters (deservedly so) is Firecracker shrimp, which features a trio of extra-large shrimp stuffed with a lightly spicy mix of deviled shrimp, scallops and cream cheese, then wrapped in rice paper and deep fried.

It's also hard to resist the temptation of one of the area's most extensive and inventive offerings of oversize house specialty sushi rolls. The Nippon Spider, for instance, which features tempura soft shell crab, avocado, scallions, masago, wasabi and cucumber, wrapped in nori and a petal-thin skin of daikon. Or the Surf & Turf, which pairs filet mignon with tempura shrimp and crab salad. Or, my favorite of those I've sampled, the Punk Rock: crab salad and cucumber, rolled and flash fried, topped with a spicy fish mix and eel sauce.

Fortunately for purists, sushi chef James Chung is as discerning as he is inventive. Working primarily with whole fish delivered by air freight from all over the world, he turns out sashimi, nigiri and traditional maki sushi that are as impeccably fresh as they are artfully presented.

Among entree options, soy-marinated beef short ribs are chewy-tender and deeply flavorful. Tempura shrimp and vegetables boast an exceptionally light and grease-free batter. And the Kobe rib-eye (delivered medium-rare, precisely as ordered) is among the tenderest and most flavorful I've had.

Is it worth the jaw-dropping price ($65 for a 12-ounce rib-eye, $68 for an 8-ounce filet)? Is it really that much better than the Angus steaks on the same menu ($25 for a rib-eye, $26 for a filet)? The difference is discernible, certainly, but I'd say it's more a difference in degree than a difference in kind. In the end, it depends on how much you can afford -- or whose money you're spending. (Note to my editor: In my case, the expense was purely in the interest of research.)

I'd skip dessert. The only one that's made in house is a mediocre chocolate torte. Instead, I'd retire to the bar and order an after dinner drink -- a glass of ice wine, maybe, or one of 16 available chilled sakes. The ice wine isn't cheap ($15 to $20 a glass, or $60 to $160 a bottle), and sake is not a traditional dessert wine. But somehow, both seem appropriate at Mura.

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