When William D'Auvray abruptly closed Fins in January, it caught many by surprise. D'Auvray is widely regarded as one of the area's most talented chefs, after all, and his restaurant had enjoyed a solid fan base dating back to its opening in 1997. But when he moved Fins from its original location in North Raleigh to larger, tonier quarters in the high-rent downtown district in 2007 - just months before the recession hit - the timing couldn't have been more unfortunate.
To some, the blow would have been devastating. But D'Auvray, who grew up in the Philippines and has traveled extensively in Asia, was no doubt aware that the Chinese word for "crisis" is composed of the characters for "danger" and "opportunity."
A month after closing Fins, he opened bu.ku in its place.
Inspired by the food sold from pushcarts and street vendors of the world - everything from Filipino lumpia to Colombian arepa - bu.ku's menu ventures far beyond the Pacific Rim boundaries of its predecessor. It's emphatically more affordable, too. Small plates, which make up the bulk of the offering, are with few exceptions priced in the $5-$10 range.
Don't be misled by the prices. D'Auvray still uses exclusively wild-caught and sustainably farmed seafood (his sashimi selection remains the envy of Japanese restaurants), and he stocks his kitchen with organic produce and naturally raised meats. The chef's considerable culinary skills are still abundantly evident, too, and his reputation for attention to detail remains intact in everything from precise knife work to eye-catching plate presentations.
In D'Auvray's hands, Hawaiian yellowtail poke - traditionally a rustic salad of raw fish - is transformed into uniformly diced gems of irreproachably fresh yellowtail in a light dressing of sweet soy and lime, punctuated with cashews and served on a bed of fine julienne cucumber and jicama. Ribbons of fried plantain, a refined variation on the traditional chips, add a welcome crunchy counterpoint.
You'd search in vain among the floating markets of Thailand for as elegant a rendition of Thai barbecued pike as the dish you're served at bu.ku: fingers of moist filet with an ethereally light, subtly spiced crust, served on a plate lined with carefully arranged bamboo leaves. Rounding out the dish is a refreshing green papaya salad which, while not authentically pungent with fish sauce, is nonetheless perfectly matched to the delicate fish.
D'Auvray's stated aim atbu.ku isn't slavish devotion to authenticity anyway, but to create broadly appealing dishes that capture the essence of the originals that inspired them. Time and again, he succeeds.
His success with Pacific Rim-inspired dishes such as sake-braised short ribs and Chinese steamed barbecued pork buns (bao) will come as no surprise to those who have eaten at Fins. The coconut red-curry hot pot with straw mushrooms and chicken, ladled out at the table, will surely evoke fond memories among longtime fans.
So will plantain-crusted Chilean sea bass and Indonesian-style snapper, two immensely popular Fins entrees that were carried over to the small entree list that bu.ku offers for those who opt for a traditional meal.
If there is a surprise, it's that D'Auvray is equally comfortable when he ventures out of his Asian comfort zone. Polish pierogis, filled with beer-braised chicken and cooked in brown butter, are first-rate. So is an entree featuring a bone-in Kurobuta pork chop, roasted on the rack (don't let the "crown rack" on the menu fool you; it refers to the cooking method, not the size of the dish) and served with trumpet royale mushroom over spring onion spaetzle.
It's hard to go wrong, really. The only advice I can give is not to consume too much of the Korean chile sambal (it's intended as a dip for one of the house-baked flatbreads, but you'll be tempted to eat it with a spoon) before you've had a chance to taste delicate dishes such as grilled octopus with white beans. Unless, that is, you've cleansed your palate with a few sips from bu.ku's eclectic selection of beers, wines, chilled sakes and specialty cocktails.
Large black-and-white photographs of market scenes and pushcarts from all over the world pay tribute to bu.ku's inspiration, but the decor is otherwise little changed from the previous incarnation as Fins' dining room. If at first the setting seems a bit posh for a restaurant that celebrates street food, don't worry. After a few bites, it'll feel just right.