Sitting at the sushi bar, watching Masatoshi Tsujimura as he deftly slices ribbons of silver-skinned mackerel, ruby-fleshed tuna and ivory escolar, I can't help thinking about the first time I ate at Waraji. It was 1997, and the restaurant had been open a few weeks. But chef Masa, as he is called, already had many years of experience under his belt. A native of the coastal Japanese city of Shimonoseki, Masa had worked at the first sushi bar in central Florida before moving to Raleigh, where he built a loyal local following as head sushi chef at Kanki.
His reputation was richly deserved, as I was to discover. Masa's seemingly effortless knife work was precise, his fish unfailingly fresh-tasting and his rice properly vinegared. Backing up the sushi bar was a kitchen that turned out the most extensive offering around, giving the area its first taste of exotic dishes such as Japanese mountain potato with quail egg.
Waraji looks pretty much the same now as it did then, from the wasabi green tatami rooms to the sparkling river of glass block set into the back wall. Nowadays, Masa may be joined behind the sushi bar by as many as three other well-trained sushi chefs. But, apart from a supplemental list of specials and a sake selection that has grown to a stunning 40 labels, the menus have changed little.
The basics and more
The quality of the offering has likewise remained high. Ika butter, an appetizer featuring squid sautéed in butter with soy, mirin and ginger, lives up to the memory of the dish I first had here years ago. Green mussels, exceptionally plump and baked to still-quivering perfection in a cloud of béchamel-light sauce, are superb.
So is the crab croquette, an ethereally light puree of crabmeat encased in a panko crust, served with ponzu sauce for dipping (but taste the croquette first without the sauce). If you like oily fish and don't mind bones, aji no hiraki - lightly salted, grilled horse mackerel - is a must. You'll find both these starters on the supplemental menu, along with the likes of fried squid legs, steamed shrimp dumplings and grilled smoked salmon.
The entree offering covers all the usual bases, as well as local rarities such as the Japanese variations on a fondue theme, sukiyaki and shabu-shabu. Shoga-yaki, a gingery grilled dish offered in pork, beef and chicken versions, is a delightful alternative for those who find teriyaki too sweet. Tempura - vegetable, shrimp or mixed seafood - is as good as any you'll find hereabouts.
From my perch at the sushi bar, it's obvious that the house specialty rolls are enormously popular. Indeed, the quality and creativity of the rolls are a decided notch above the competition, and the selection so extensive there isn't room to print them all on the sushi list.
The staff knows
Fortunately, even if you aren't sitting at the sushi bar, most of the wait staff are familiar with those off-menu rolls. Your server will be happy to tell you about, say, the Scary Jerry, a positively rococo composition of a half dozen varieties of fish and shellfish, tempura bits, spicy mayo, avocado and smelt roe. Or the Crack Roll, a spicy hand roll starring toro that's named for its addictive quality (and at $9.20 a pop, you'll feel like you're getting a fix in more ways than one).
Tonight, though, I'm sitting at the sushi bar, and the sight of all that pristine fish glistening just inches from my face has put me in a purist mood. Tonight I indulge in a feast of sashimi and nigiri sushi, from buttery yellowtail to firm, rice vinegar-washed mackerel. Sea urchin roe, whose shelf life is notoriously short, comes perilously to the funky territory of less-than-ideal freshness. Everything else is irreproachable.
For that matter, pretty much everything I sampled over the course of three recent visits lives up to my memories of Waraji in the early days. And, of course, when you set such high standards in the beginning, lack of change is a good thing.