Review

HaRu's dual menu doubles the enjoyable meals

CorrespondentMay 16, 2013 

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    HaRu

    101 Keybridge Drive, Morrisville

    919-677-1190

    harujapanese.com

    Cuisine: Japanese, Korean

    Rating: * * * 

    Prices: $$-$$$

    Atmosphere: contemporary Asian, with two tatami rooms

    Noise level: low

    Service: efficient, generally pleasant

    Recommended: Korean menu, tempura shrimp and vegetables

    Open: Lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday

    Reservations: accepted

    Other: beer and wine; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; parking in lot.

    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.

“Korean sweet potato soup,” our waiter says as he sets small bowls before us.

The complimentary welcoming dish, he explains, is to draw attention to HaRu’s new Korean menu. Just a few weeks after the restaurant’s November opening in the old Asuka space in Morrisville, owner Joon Kim has supplemented the restaurant’s Japanese offering with a sampling of his native fare.

The soup is only subtly sweet, its texture velvet. The yolk-yellow color and flavor – earthy, reminiscent of chestnuts – leave no doubt that it’s made with Korean sweet potatoes, not their sweeter American cousins. At once comforting and just a little exotic, the soup has done its job: We decide to order from the Korean menu.

Our options are few – a mere seven dishes, listed on a tabletop tent of the sort commonly used for drink specials. But the list does a good job of hitting the high spots of the Korean repertoire.

Korean barbecue classics bulgogi (marinated beef) and galbi (short ribs) are both present and accounted for, as are two versions of bibimbap: the familiar dolsot (served in a hot stone bowl), and a room temperature bibimbap topped with sashimi snapper and tuna. Seafood pancake, soon tofu (a stew of soft tofu, vegetables and your choice of seafood or meat) and albap (which the menu describes as “delicious flying fish roe with marinated kimchi, Japanese pickles over rice”) round out the offering.

We decide to share the seafood pancake as a starter. Our reward – a kaleidoscope of shrimp, scallions, julienne red pepper and shiitakes in a savory pancake with a lacy golden-brown crust – is as good as I’ve had. Anywhere.

Soon tofu, which serves up a cavernous bowl of properly cooked seafood and pillowy tofu in a broth that’s medium-spicy as specified, is also a winner.

So is galbi: a generous pile of sesame-spangled ribs, the meat satisfyingly chewy-tender beneath a savory-sweet glaze of classic Korean barbecue marinade. The accompanying rice is served in a hot bowl, which gives the bottom layer a toothsome texture that bodes well for anyone ordering the stone bowl bibimbap.

A trio of traditional Korean pickled-vegetable salads complete the galbi feast. Oddly, kimchi is not among them. Instead, a small American-style iceberg lettuce salad is the only disappointment in an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable meal.

It’s so enjoyable, in fact, that I hear the siren call of that little Korean menu on the table the next time we pay a visit a few weeks later. Duty calls, though, and we focus instead on Japanese fare. HaRu bills itself primarily as a Japanese restaurant, after all, and backs up the claim with an extensive menu that dwarfs the Korean offering.

I’ll confess I’m a little skeptical that the second visit will measure up to the first. Experience has taught me that restaurants with dual menus are rarely able to maintain the same high standards for both. The fact that the Japanese menu is plastered with “Buy One Get One Free – any roll combination on the menu” isn’t reassuring.

I’m pleasantly surprised, then, when a starter of shrimp and vegetable tempura proves to be excellent. Seaweed salad, served over a skein of daikon threads and garnished with crab stick, is fine, too. So are well-filled, nicely browned gyoza.

Tuna tataki doesn’t live up to its alluring presentation, the culprits being an overzealous sprinkling of chile and a too-acerbic sauce that gang up on and overpower the fish. Tempura soft shell crab comes closer to the mark, though the batter falls a bit short of the standard set by the shrimp and vegetable tempura.

Sushi is, in a word, average. In some cases (nigiri yellowtail and scallop) it’s a bit better than that, and in others (mackerel) not so much. Rolls are on a par with what you get at most BOGO sushi bars. Bargain hunters may want to note that the Double Trouble, which looks pricy at $15.95, is in fact two rolls in one.

Color-morphing neon lights lining one dining room wall stand out in an otherwise typically spare, contemporary Asian decor. Two tatami rooms are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Service is efficient and pleasant for the most part, though one waiter in particular doesn’t seem knowledgeable – or particularly enthused – about the Korean fare.

But don’t let that stop you. Odds are, you’ll have more than enough enthusiasm to make up for it.

ggcox@bellsouth.net or blogs@newsobserver.com/mouthful

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