Sushi bar veterans are accustomed to being courted by house specialty rolls and other raw fish creations with fanciful names. They try to seduce (Sex on the Beach Roll), captivate with exotic images (Fire Dragon Roll), even flatter with references to home turf (Cary Parkway Roll). Anything to distinguish their offerings in an increasingly crowded field.
Yuri, which opened in June in Cary, is no exception. In fact, you'll find the three aforementioned rolls among the 37 on Yuri's extensive and varied list. And that's not counting the 19 rolls listed in separate sections dedicated to deep-fried rolls, dynamite rolls and rolls without rice (where you'll find the dieter's come-on, the Dr. Atkins Roll).
Sushi chef Edward Sun has a few more tricks up his sleeve, too. One in particular, listed under the heading of "Chef's Special," is sure to get the attention of the most jaded palate: Monkey Brain.
Relax. We're not talking about breaking any dietary taboos. Monkey Brain, which features a half avocado, lightly deep-fried and filled with crabmeat and spicy tuna, is named for its appearance. It's a signature dish the chef brought from California, where he wielded a sushi knife for some 20 years before moving to the Triangle with his father, Thomas (himself a veteran restaurateur), to open Yuri. The dish is entirely primate-free, and it's thoroughly delightful.
Start with good fish
So is the Butterfly Roll, an artful composition of salmon-wrapped crabmeat, translucent lemon slices and a rainbow of sauces whose resemblance to its namesake is as whimsical as the Monkey Brain's is startling. The aptly named Ahi Tower, a stacked cylinder of tuna, crabmeat, avocado and three kinds of caviar on a foundation of vinegared rice, is another refreshing change of pace from the usual specialty roll presentation. And the extravagant Lobster Dynamite should find fans even among those for whom the term "dynamite" has long since lost its explosive power.
For all his showmanship, Sun shines brightest with the classic sushi and sashimi that are the hallmark of an excellent sushi chef. He starts with superior quality fish, even for sushi bar staples - salmon from Scotland, for instance, and big-eye tuna from Hawaii. Thanks to his longstanding connections with suppliers, he's often able to procure local rarities such as fresh sea urchin, giant clams and exquisitely sweet live scallops.
Sun's knife work is sure, his cuts generous and served at the proper temperature on expertly vinegared rice. Surprisingly, prices are on par with what you'll find elsewhere, with most nigiri sushi going for $4 to $5 a pair. I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for any buy-one-get-one free offers, though. You get what you pay for, after all.
Execution in the kitchen doesn't always measure up to the high standards of the sushi bar, but it's nonetheless solid for the most part. New Zealand green-lip mussels, broiled on the half shell under a masago-spangled blanket of Japanese mayonnaise, are a winning starter option. So are exceptionally delicate shrimp siu mai. Tempuras are reliably light and crisp, though you're apt to come across the occasional overcooked broccoli floret.
You'll probably be willing to overlook that flaw if your tempura is part of an order of tempura udon, where the deep-fried goodies are served alongside a bowl of thick noodles, fish cake and shiitakes in a light, briny broth.
Beef sukiyaki, on the other hand, is a mixed bag. The dish is attractively served in a cast iron pot that keeps the contents - petal-thin slices of beef, poached egg, bok choy and other vegetables in a slightly sweet, umami-rich broth - hot. But because it's prepared in the kitchen, the beef tends to be overcooked by the time it's served. And, of course, you miss out on the communal fondue experience of traditional sukiyaki.
Still, taken as a whole, Yuri ranks among the better Japanese restaurants in the area. The classically serene Japanese setting is warmly inviting, as is the attentive, eager-to-please wait staff. Little touches at every turn - wasabi molded into a leaf shape, an exceptional selection of Japanese beers and sakes - add sparkle. It all adds up to a most enjoyable experience, with comfort and excitement in equilibrium - just what you'd expect from a restaurant that offers Monkey Brain and Butterfly Roll on the same menu.