In one corner of the red and black lacquered bento box sits a spicy tuna roll – or half a roll, to be precise, as there are only four pieces. The number is understandable, given that sushi is just one of four components in a lunchtime bento offering that, depending on options, ranges from $10.95 to $14.25. The roll is well-formed, too, though the texture of the tuna, minced to a near-paste consistency, comes as a bit of a surprise.
Turns out it’s the least surprising thing in the box. Nestled in the other compartments, like edible panes in a stained glass window, are a red Thai shrimp curry, Korean kimchi and – are you ready? – french fries.
Alternatively, you could opt for, say, beef teriyaki, fried rice, a mixed-greens salad and a California roll. Or salmon in basil sauce, potstickers, an eel roll and sweet potato fries.
You get the idea. There are as many ways to mix and match your way to a meal as there are ways to fold a flat sheet of paper into the fanciful forms that are the inspiration for Sushi Gami’s name. And for all its possibilities, bento is just part of a multifaceted menu billed as “Asian-American fusion.”
Top billing is given to sushi and burgers – an unlikely combination, it seems, until you realize that you’re looking at a twin bill that enfolds two of America’s most popular foods into a single menu. A novel marketing plan, to be sure, and a clever one.
But as anyone who has tried to make an origami crane knows, putting a plan into effect takes practice.
The good news is that, when it comes to sushi, owner/sushi chef Walter Xu has had plenty of practice. Born in a Chinese town with a sizable Japanese population, Xu worked most recently in New York (notably at Kanoyama, which earned a favorable review in the New York Times) before coming to Raleigh to open Sushi Gami in Cameron Village last October.
Xu’s experience shows in an extensive offering of traditional sushi and inventive specialty rolls that, with few exceptions, is characterized by fresh fish and expert knife work.
The most egregious exception I encountered came, unfortunately, at a high price: $9.95 for four anemic, fishy-tasting pieces of toro sashimi. The tuna belly was all the more disappointing in light of the fact that toro, among the most prized of sushi cuts, was featured on the specials board over the sushi bar.
I’m inclined to chalk the toro up as an anomaly, though, given the quality of the other sushi I’ve gotten here. Anago (seldom-seen saltwater cousin of the familiar freshwater eel, unagi), listed on the same board that night, was first-rate.
Don’t confuse Sushi Gami’s specialty rolls, which are available at two for $19.95, including your choice of miso soup or house salad with ginger dressing – with the ubiquitous BOGO sushi. These don’t pad their way to low price with a lot of rice.
Yellowtail jalapeño, one of the sushi bar’s contributions to the appetizer list, serves up ivory ribbons of barely seared fish, pale green rings of pepper and scarlet dots of Sriracha in a pinwheel pattern framed in a shimmering puddle of ponzu. It’s as vibrant on the palate as it is on the plate.
Seafood kakiage – nuggets of fish and shellfish fried in a tempura batter thinned to translucent delicacy with mirin – is another winning starter from the kitchen. So is the “inside out” wonton dip, a whimsical and shareable deconstruction of crab rangoon.
If you’re not in the mood for sushi, the kitchen has got you covered with a handful of serviceable variations on the Japanese noodle, noodle soup and stir-fried rice themes.
I’d steer clear of the burgers, though, unless you like them cooked medium-well, because that’s the only way they cook them. And be advised that “medium-well” means that you’ll get a thick, half-pound disk of beef cooked to a dry, rubbery fare-thee-well.
Sound good? Then you’ll have your pick of variations on the theme, from classic cheddar cheeseburger to Sriracha Gotcha. There are even a few East-West mashups like the Marco Polo: an open-faced burger with sashimi salmon, avocado slices, lettuce and Gami sauce (think sweet Thai chile sauce meets Thousand Island dressing) on the side. Pile everything on for a truly offbeat burger experience, or enjoy the sashimi on its own.
Either way, the pairing of raw fish and medium-well burger strikes me as supremely ironic, especially in light of the change in North Carolina law last year allowing restaurants to cook burgers to any temperature, as long as the menu includes a standard disclaimer.
When I brought the matter up with operations manager Steven Richard, he confirmed that I’m far from alone in my opinion. A new menu, due out in six weeks or so, will include the disclaimer.
Until then, I’ve got a simple origami solution: Fold the current menu (figuratively speaking, of course) so that you can’t see the burgers.
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