When Sushi Nine opened last December with the motto "home of the largest sushi bar in town," I naturally had to sneak a peek. Sure enough, when I looked in early one Friday evening, five sushi chefs were slicing and rolling behind a 16-seat sushi bar.
And what a sushi bar it is: gently curved, underside glowing with electric blue lights, it's the focal point of a sprawling dining room that for the last decade was Ten Ten Chinese buffet. Sushi Nine owner Lisa Fatfat has given the place a complete makeover with a vibrant contemporary look to match the sushi bar.
As I watched, a three-foot-long lacquered boat, laden with a colorful cargo of nigiri sushi and house specialty rolls, set sail. Borne on the shoulder of a waiter, the craft made for a port of call at the far end of the dining room. Needless to say, the scene got my attention.
But I didn't stay to eat. I had other plans, and I'll confess I was skeptical as to whether the food would live up to the promise of all that eye candy. In my experience, visual pyrotechnics are not hallmarks of a first-rate sushi bar. Nor, for that matter, is a claim to be the "largest."
Recently, though, the upstart eatery raised the ante with the brash claim of "the best sushi in Raleigh." OK, now I had to check it out.
While "best" is clearly overstating the case, turns out the sushi is pretty darn good - especially for a place whose stock in trade is BOGO sushi rolls, all day, every day. That works out to an average of around $5 or $6 apiece for a selection of some 40 large specialty rolls ranging from American Dream (soft shell crab, avocado and cucumber topped with crab stick, tempura flakes and a mild "special" sauce) to Zombie (salmon skin, eel, scallions, avocado, asparagus, masago and eel sauce).
Sashimi and nigiri sushi are respectable, too, and generously portioned, though they're not quite the bargain that the rolls are. You won't find pricey rarities on the list, but all the usual suspects are present and accounted for - and, in my experience, consistently fresh-tasting.
Even so, my next visit to Sushi Nine won't be for yellowtail, tuna and salmon, or even a couple of rolls (though the Caterpillar and Sushi Nine would be tempting).
Most likely, I'll be there for another helping of shrimp tempura udon, which serves up thick, chewy-tender noodles in a big bowl of broth whose translucency belies its rich, briny flavor. Alongside, a trio of jumbo shrimp in a textbook batter provides delicately crisp counterpoint.
I could also go for an encore of the Thai green curry chicken: juicy shreds of breast meat, crisp-tender green beans, Asian eggplant and basil leaves in a tropically fragrant curry. Or maybe I'd try a different curry - coconut-creamy yellow curry, say, or Massaman curry, with sweet potatoes, avocado and cashews.
Wait, I hear you saying: Thai curries? That's right, Thai curries. You'd never know it by the restaurant's name, but Sushi Nine's kitchen turns out a varied sampling of pan-Asian specialties in addition to the expected tempura, teriyaki and hibachi fare. Most of the non-Japanese offering is Thai (not surprising, given that the owner is a native of Thailand), but you'll also find a handful of Vietnamese and Chinese specialties sprinkled throughout the list.
Among starters, chicken satay is as juicy and flavorful as any you'll find hereabouts. Salt and pepper calamari are supremely tender (according to Fatfat, they cut and clean fresh squid in house) in an exemplary light batter. You won't mind that it's more like a Japanese tempura than a Chinese salt and pepper crust. Crab wontons and fried gyoza are respectable, though their wrappers can on occasion stray into dense and chewy territory.
Clearly an ecumenical epicurean, Lisa Fatfat is just as proud of her restaurant's sesame chicken and General Tso's chicken ("we always use fresh chicken, not frozen") as she is of its curries and pad thai. She raves about the tamarind duck, too, and seemed truly disappointed when I said I hadn't tried it yet. Looks like I've got yet another good reason to pay Sushi Nine a return visit.