Epicurean

Japanese choices range widely

CorrespondentFebruary 27, 2008 

Got a yen for sushi? You can satisfy it at any of four new restaurants -- all featuring Japanese cuisine, but each as different from the other as sea urchin from a California roll.

Sono (319 Fayetteville St.; 521-5328; www.sonoraleigh.com), which opened last week in downtown Raleigh, is the most boldly different of the lot. Just how different begins to become evident as soon as you walk in the door and find yourself in a cosmopolitan-chic setting decked out in sultry hues of red and black. An eye-catching mural of a reclining woman reaching for an orchid overlooks the dining room, where patrons order from chef/partner Mike Lee's selection of small plates and entrees with a decidedly modern Asian accent: white fish with citrus ponzu and hot olive oil; foie gras with sweet ginger glaze; sea bass with truffled soy reduction; flat iron steak with a wasabi balsamic glaze -- you get the idea. Lee also oversees the sushi bar at the back of the room, which -- not coincidentally -- is only half as large as the curved, neon-lit liquor bar at the front. Sushi is clearly only part of the package at Sono. Or, as partner G. Patel puts it, "We're aiming for Manhattan in Raleigh." Looks like they've hit the target.

In contrast, Haru (2603-155 Glenwood Ave.; 235-0589), which opened earlier this month in Glenwood Village, is a quiet haven for sushi aficionados. Owner/sushi chef Fang Yongxing, who has racked up 15 years of experience in sushi bars from Tokyo to New York, brings with him an ambitious offering that includes several items rarely if ever seen heretofore in these parts, including albacore tuna tataki, a daily selection of "toro" from tuna, salmon and yellowtail, and -- with 24 hours' notice -- lobster sashimi. There's a small selection of appetizers and entrees from the kitchen, but the sushi is clearly the star of the show here. Fittingly, the sushi bar dominates the jewel box of a dining room, which is open for lunch Monday through Friday and dinner nightly.

Meanwhile in Cary -- and at the other end of the Japanese restaurant spectrum -- Ginza (1077 Darrington Drive; 461-9892; www.ginzanc.com) is as sprawling and all-encompassing as Haru is compact and focused. One side of the restaurant is a Japanese steakhouse where up to six teppanyaki chefs at a time can slice and stir-fry their way through an offering that ranges from hibachi chicken to filet and lobster tail combo. A bar separates the steakhouse from a spare contemporary Asian dining room, which offers a quiet alternative for those not in the mood for the twirling-knives-and-flaming-shrimp show. Along one wall are three low tables for dining tatami room-style. And the sushi bar? That's in the back, and it appears to be well-stocked with all the usual suspects. Can't wait to find out what the Shaggy Dog roll is.

Also in Cary, Thai Spices & Sushi (986 High House Road; 319-1818; www.thaispicesandsushi.com) casts an even wider culinary net, stretching all the way from the Sea of Japan to Southeast Asia. The Japanese-Thai twin bill offering has become so common that it's tempting to think of it as a category all its own, but the look of this restaurant is anything but generic. With decor highlights including a tropical forest green motif and a richly colorful mural of an ancient Thai capital, owners Chanatsip Sukhothai and Durapon Pousajja have thoroughly transformed the generic strip mall space they inherited from previous occupant Mama Wok. They plan on adding more embellishments, including a waterfall fountain.

But you don't have to wait until they've finished decorating. They're already serving lunch Tuesday through Sunday and dinner nightly.

ggcox@bellsouth.net or http://blogs.newsobserver.com/epicurean

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