Restaurants on Fayetteville Street come and go, but Sono has been serving sushi and Japanese cuisine steadily since 2008, not long after the downtown corridor opened to traffic.
But even longtime staples need to evolve. At least that’s the philosophy behind the new team at Sono, which includes general manager James Yang and new executive chef Hyun-Woo Kim. Both have years of experience with sushi restaurants, most recently at the now-closed An Asian Cuisines, a fine dining Asian restaurant in Cary. They join manager Mitsuyo Nishio, who has been at Sono several years.
“We’re just excited to get this reboot going,” Yang said. “There’s a lot more competition (downtown), which is great. We should offer the choices. We look forward to saying, ‘Hey, Just remember we’re still here.’ ”
With that in mind, Yang and Kim have refocused the menu with an emphasis on serving the freshest fish and ingredients. Yang said he wants the menu to be “traditional yet progressive.”
Both Kim and Yang said they also want to educate customers about sushi and the importance of sushi-grade seafood. At the same time, Yang said, he wants sushi to be approachable to those not familiar with the types of rolls that come from Kim’s sushi counter.
“We want them to understand this is a quality product,” Yang said. “A lot of people think sushi means raw fish. Sushi actually means vinegar and rice. It’s something of a misconception.”
Guests can order classic rolls, sashimi, nigiri and specialty rolls off the menu.
Or, they can sit at the sushi bar for Omakase, an eight-course tasting menu prepared by Kim and his team. The courses vary depending on the customers’ requests along with Kim’s creativity. Kim likes to talk with customers to gauge their sushi experience. Have they had sushi before? How adventurous are they? If they’ve had a previous bad experience, he hopes to change that. The braver they are, the more adventurous he gets.
“I’m just trying to make something special,” he said. “It’s my unique food.”
The dinner menu also features several ramen bowls ,while poké bowls are available at lunch. There also is Korean fried chicken, made with 15 spices, and Bento Boxes with a combination of sushi, salad and chef choices for sides.
All can be served with wasabi that’s freshly ground at the table for an extra charge.
Yang isn’t stopping at tweaking the food menu’s contents. They now use fresh bluecrab, not imitation crab. There’s locally sourced ingredients, too. And the fish? They use a head-to-tail approach where as much of the fish is used as possible, and it only will be served while it’s still fresh.
“A lot of places, they carry 15 to 20 different fish,” Yang said. “We’re going to carry the best tuna, salmon and yellowtail. ... If my chef isn’t going to eat it, we won’t serve it.”
He’s expanded the wine list from six to 90 wines. He’s especially excited about the expansive sake list, which jumped from five to 30 options. He is one of the few certified sake advisers in the area, Yang said.
He said diners think they can only get Japanese beer at a sushi restaurant. He wants to change that idea. A “saketini” is 100 percent sake, while a Sono Sour is a play on a Whiskey Sour with plum sake.
Sono is now owned by Clean Plate Restaurants. Yang, a sushi chef for 10 years, joined Sono in February 2016 after working as general manager at An for eight years. He left before the restaurant, affiliated with the Umstead Hotel, closed earlier this year.
Kim, 38, has worked in restaurants for 20 years and owned a restaurant in his native South Korea. He worked at An for more than four years under Chef Steven Devereaux Greene. He came to Sono in February.
“We have great chemistry,” Yang said of Kim. “The best part is we have that same passion for what we do. We needed that jumping-off point, that person that will look really deep and care for the product.”
A few other personnel from An also have migrated to Sono. Interior renovations are in progress. The floors were recently redone, and local art is planned for the walls.
“Our goal is to be approachable to the diverse clientele we have downtown – residential, business, students,” Yang said. “We want to be that cornerstone. It’s been that cornerstone there for 10 years.”
Info: 319 Fayetteville St., Raleigh. It is open weekdays for lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and dinner from 5 to 10 p.m. (11 p.m. on Friday and Saturdays). sonoraleigh.com