Restaurant Review

The sushi stars, but it's the pan-Asian fare that scores

CorrespondentJuly 29, 2011 

  • 222 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh, 838-8868,

    Cuisine: Japanese, Asian


    Prices: $$

    Atmosphere: contemporary Asian

    Noise level: low to moderate

    Service: variable, but improving

    Recommended: Crystal Roll, Thai curries, pho

    Open: Lunch Monday-Friday, dinner nightly.

    Reservations: accepted

    Other: full bar; get a sitter; limited vegetarian selection; patio

    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.

Don't let the name fool you. Sushi accounts for only half of the offering at Sushi O. The other half is a pan-Asian menu that spans the continent from Mongolian beef to Thai curry. The concept is an increasingly familiar one, and in the case of Sushi O, which opened last October on Glenwood South, you may even get a sense of déjà vu.

Especially if you've eaten at Mount Fuji in Brightleaf Square. John Tang, who owns both restaurants, borrowed heavily from the popular Durham eatery in creating the menu for his new venture in Raleigh. That includes the Mount Fuji signature dish, John's Spicy Chicken.

But, as the different names suggest, Sushi O is not a clone of Mount Fuji. The Raleigh restaurant is considerably smaller, for one thing. And, according to Tang, sales in Durham are about evenly divided between sushi and pan-Asian fare, while the sushi bar rakes in 90 percent of orders in Raleigh.

Early evening deals

Many of those orders come in the early evening, when Sushi O trumps the specials at other sushi bars with half-price rolls, nigiri sushi and even sashimi from 5 to 6:30 p.m.

Then there's the restaurant's name, which advertises sushi but makes no reference to the other side of the menu.

It does make for an attention-getter of a name, that's for sure. And the sultry style of the place - sleekly modern chairs upholstered in black leather, rich chocolate brown walls, cocktails with names like Blushing Geisha and Under the Kimono - lives up to the thinly veiled allusion. Unfortunately, the sushi bar too often leaves you hanging.

The O Roll, one of the restaurant's showcase oversize rolls, tries too hard to win you over with an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach: fried oysters, asparagus, avocado and hot sauce, topped with shrimp, garlic, Parmesan, cheddar and a few more flavor flourishes. Then it's run under the broiler and served hot. Even in the rococo world of Japanese specialty rolls, this one is a clear case of ingredient overkill.

In contrast, the Sweet Romeo (tuna, crunchy tempura, spicy sauce and cilantro, topped with eel and avocado) is admirably restrained. The Crystal Roll (tempura whitefish, cream cheese, asparagus and spicy mayo inside, topped with scallop, wasabi mayo, masago and tobiko) is another keeper.

Flaws are more obvious in traditional nigiri sushi and sashimi, where they can't hide behind a pantry full of ingredients. Without cream cheese, mayo and hot sauce, it becomes obvious that the rice at Sushi O can be dry on occasion, and that the cut and quality of the fish simply don't measure up to the standards of a first-rate sushi bar.

You're more likely to find satisfaction by forgetting about the restaurant's name after you've scored a couple of half-price rolls, and turning instead to the pan-Asian menu for the rest of the meal.

On the other side

If you're in the mood for something light, a couple of starters will do. Lemongrass rolls, say, or Tang's Vietnamese twist on traditional Japanese beef tataki, which pairs nuggets of lean seared beef with a jalapeño-studded dipping sauce. Or salt and pepper calamari, fried in a tempura-like batter and tossed with garlic and chopped scallions.

The entree lineup includes the usual pan-Asian suspects, from orange-flavored chicken to shrimp pineapple fried rice. If you're looking for something a little different, sam-rod grouper (a flash-fried filet in a pungent Thai sauce spangled with diced bell peppers) should satisfy.

Thai coconut curries are a worthy option, too, judging by the tropically fragrant red chicken curry I enjoyed recently. Beef, shrimp, scallop and tofu curries are also available, in the usual curry variations: red, green, yellow, massaman and Panang.

Stir-fried noodles and noodle soups are represented by a diverse assortment that includes pad thai, Vietnamese vermicelli, Japanese udon and a tasty (albeit tame) Szechwan dan dan noodles. John Tang, who grew up in Vietnam, is especially proud of his pho, and deservedly so.

Come to think of it, Sushi Pho wouldn't be a bad name for a restaurant.

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