This well-prepared sushi needs no dipping

CorrespondentApril 9, 2010 

  • 4325 Highway 55 (Apex Highway), Durham

    361-8078

    www.sansuisushinc.com

    Cuisine: Japanese

    Rating: 1/2

    Prices: $$-$$$

    Atmosphere: colorful Japanese

    Noise level: moderate

    Service: generally efficient and enthusiastic

    Recommended: sushi (including specialty rolls), Ocean Pyramid, yellowtail cheek

    Open: Lunch Monday-Friday, dinner nightly.

    Reservations: accepted

    Other: full bar; accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection; tatami room available

    The N&O's critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: Extraordinary Excellent. Above average. Average. Fair.

    The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

'Try them first without any wasabi or soy sauce," our waiter said as he delivered the sushi rolls we'd ordered at Sansui. The suggestion wasn't necessary in our case, but it was the first time I'd ever heard it from a waiter, and it was gratifying to hear.

In my opinion - and a lot of people with considerably more sushi expertise than I have would back me up - dipping your sushi into a slurry of wasabi and soy without tasting it first is the Japanese equivalent of reaching for the salt shaker before tasting your food.

Sure enough, even a whisper of extraneous wasabi would have destroyed the delicate balance of white tuna, citrus mayo and sweet miso cream sauce in the Snow White Roll. Nor would it have contributed anything to the justifiably popular Jacksonville Roll, which showcases crawfish tails and white tuna seared to a delicately smoky turn. And in the case of the Stone Roll's elaborate medley of eel, shrimp tempura, avocado and salmon, liberally drizzled with a sweet red chile sauce, a wasabi-soy dip would be a case of gilding an already baroque lily.

Sushi bargain hunters will note that we ordered three rolls, not the even number required to take advantage of the BOGO offers at many sushi bars. That's because at Sansui, all rolls are half off, all the time. By no means, however, does the (artificially) reduced price mean a sacrifice in quality. Owner Tommy Wen gets daily deliveries of fresh fish, much of it from Hawaiian waters. Occasionally he's even able to score such local rarities as Bahamian conch.

A skillful knife

Wen's six years of experience as a sushi chef are evident in skillful knife work, attention to details such as house-cured mackerel, and presentations that are thoughtfully conceived without being overwrought. His signature Ocean Pyramid, a tobiko-capped tower of yellowtail, tuna, salmon, avocado and rice surrounded by a shallow moat of citrus soy vinaigrette, is a multisensory delight. So is the chef's elegant take on Hawaiian ahi poke, which he frequently offers as a special: thin, ruby slices of tuna, strung out like a necklace across a narrow rectangular platter and spangled with chopped scallion, wasabi-dyed tobiko and a glistening drizzle of ponzu.

The kitchen turns in a solid performance, too. You'll find all the usual hibachi, teriyaki, tempura and noodle dish suspects, as well as a few pleasant surprises. One of these is kushiyaki, which features skewers of grilled shrimp, chicken or beef, lightly glazed with teriyaki sauce. If you like teriyaki but find the dish too often cloying with a surfeit of sauce, this is just what the doctor ordered.

Hamachi-kama, the broiled yellowtail cheek that you have to know to ask for in many Japanese restaurants, is proudly listed on the menu here, and with good reason. Making allowances for the few scales that escaped the chef's knife, the hamachi-kama I had at Sansui is as good as any I've had in these parts. Broiled mackerel is a keeper, too, if you like strong-flavored fish.

Mix and match

Tempura is sold a la carte, allowing you to choose among 14 options from calamari to zucchini. You can assemble the familiar shrimp-and-vegetable tempura combination found at other restaurants for about the same price. Or you can mix and match your way to a more creative combo that includes, say, scallops, eel and shiitake. Regardless of your selection, you'll find the batter light and delicately crisp.

Lapses, in the kitchen and behind the sushi bar, are uncommon. In the course of my sampling, I encountered only one from each: an appetizer of panko-fried oysters that were overcooked, and a slightly fishy tasting piece of tuna sashimi. (Again, I'm allowing a mulligan for the scales on that otherwise stellar hamachi-kama.)

Service is efficient and enthusiastic, by and large, though things can lag a bit when the place gets busy. The dining room is pleasant enough if a bit, um, exuberant in comparison to most Japanese restaurants - owing in large measure to an ornate five foot tall gold sculpture topped with a spinning gold ball that's evocative of a disco ball. Inherited from the short-lived Asian restaurant that preceded Sansui in the space, the sculpture seems out of place against a backdrop of geisha prints and shoji screens. If you find it distracting at first, rest assured the food will soon put you at ease.

ggcox@bellsouth.net or blogs@newsobserver.com/mouthful

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