It’s a Saturday night in January, and the dining room at Sushi Lulu – a narrow space with eight tables or so, furnished in muted earth tones and the austere, sparsely decorated fashion of Japanese tradition – is full. In the few minutes since we were seated, three takeout customers have picked up their orders from the tiny L-shaped sushi bar at the front of the room.
It’s a harbinger of good things to come, no doubt. The fact that the restaurant has been open for six months – long enough for the flush of novelty to have worn off – makes it even more encouraging.
But I’m getting an uneasy feeling. There’s only one waiter for the entire dining room, and experience has taught me that very few servers can handle this many customers with aplomb. Granted, we had the same waiter on a previous visit, and the meal had gone smoothly. But that was a weeknight, and the room was only half full.
I’m a little concerned about our waiter’s demeanor, too. Is that earnest expression on his face a look of quiet confidence? Or of a deer caught in the headlights? I fear we may be in for a long night.
That fear, as it turns out, is entirely unfounded. Our meal comes off without a hitch (with the usual caveat that, as in most Japanese restaurants, the food – whether from the sushi bar or the kitchen – comes out as it is ready). Nary a glass of water stands empty, nor do we once languish for an offer to replenish our drinks from Sushi Lulu’s excellent selection of Japanese beers and sakes.
However, the slapdash assembly and careless knife work revealed in the Rainbow roll we’ve ordered is a telltale sign that the sushi chef is feeling the pressure. To be fair, though, his skills were revealed in a much better light on our previous visit, when they were showcased with a thoroughly delightful Sushi Lulu roll: spicy tuna and avocado inside; panko-fried scallop and eel sauce outside; and a garnishing sprinkle of flying fish roe and radish sprouts. And the chef’s sashimi selection of salmon, tuna and yellowtail left no doubt as to the freshness of the fish.
On both occasions, the kitchen shows that it’s capable of delivering the goods with an extensive izakaya menu (think Japanese tapas) divided into categories labeled Garden, Farm, Sea, Raw and Rice & Noodle. The only glaring exception is yakitori-glazed grilled mackerel, which proves exceptionally fishy even by mackerel standards.
A small plate featuring a pair of panko-fried soft shell crabs with ponzu dipping sauce rescues the reputation of the Sea category.
The Raw section is ably represented by the Tokyo Tower, a miniature Mount Fuji of sashimi tuna and salmon, avocado and petal-thin slices of mango, surrounded by a lake of sesame-tinged sweet ponzu sauce and surmounted by a cloud of crisp wonton threads. Ahi poke, a pagoda-like stack of sesame- and soy-marinated tuna alternating with “roofs” of fried wonton squares, is likewise impressive.
Venturing inland, we harvest a first-rate vegetable tempura from the Garden section. And an umami explosion of baked eggplant filled with a stir-fried medley of shrimp, red bell peppers, mushrooms and diced eggplant in a sweet-savory dashi sauce.
Grilled pork belly, from the Farm section, is a qualified success. The lean bits are more chewy than crisp, but the subtle nip of jalapeño in the accompanying mushroom- and onion-studded sauce is so addictive that we don’t stop eating until we’ve polished the whole thing off.
When we order chicken kara age (a rustic, more densely battered cousin to tempura), our only disappointment is that the promised garlic mayo dip is AWOL.
But we have no quibbles whatsoever with beef ishiyaki. Japan’s answer to Korean bibimbap, the dish – medley of marinated rib-eye, mushrooms, green beans and onions on a bed of rice – arrives still sizzling in a hot stone bowl, nestled in a simple wooden frame. The ishiyaki is served with a small dish of chili paste on the side, along with instructions to stir it in to taste – and to keep stirring occasionally, to prevent the food on the bottom from burning.
Later, I learn that our unflappable waiter is Jin Chang, brother and partner of chef Shawn Chang. Turns out the Chang brothers are natives of Korea who owned Sushi Republic, a popular restaurant in Greensboro, before moving to Raleigh to open Sushi Lulu last summer. I suppose it’s selfish to say it, but I’m happy to report that Greensboro’s loss is Raleigh’s gain.