Anyone familiar with the Eschelon Experiences restaurants in Raleigh – Mura, Faire and The Oxford, among others – won’t be surprised by the group’s first foray into Durham.
The location, in the new Diamond View III building overlooking the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, is in keeping with Eschelon’s penchant for trendy digs. And the decor – life-size faux flowering dogwood in the entry, dining room a pastiche of sleek scarlet and black framed in natural woods – lives up to their reputation for visual drama. Directly behind the sushi bar, an open kitchen turns the culinary show into a double feature.
But it’s the simple chalkboard on the wall at the end of the sushi bar, where the nightly features are listed, that gets my attention. There, in addition to a specialty roll and appetizer special, the list of featured fish on a recent Saturday night includes shima aji (striped jack), kinmedai (golden eye snapper), bluefin tuna, otoro (the prized fattiest part of the tuna belly) and uni (sea urchin).
It’s an impressive list, and a promising sign that the sushi chef is a cut above the norm. Toshio Sakamaki certainly has the pedigree to back up the claim. Born in Tokyo, where his father was a sushi chef, Sakamaki’s 30-year career includes work in New York and San Francisco before coming to the Triangle, where he was most recently sushi chef at Mura.
Chef Sakamaki’s experience is evident in knife skills that are as sharp as his eye for selecting premium quality fish, as I happily confirmed with a sushi and sashimi extravaganza that included nearly every item on that Saturday night’s features list. Everything was irreproachably fresh and artfully presented, with highlights including uni nestled in carved cucumber cups, and kinmedai – a fish I’ve never had before – whose sweet, supple flesh I found to be evocative of scallops.
On the menu, the chef’s offering is further distinguished by its focus on West Coast style sushi, which Eschelon owner Guarev Patel has described as “a brighter, fresher, less fried style.” Applied to specialty rolls, that translates to a higher fish-to-rice ratio – and prices to match, with most rolls in the $12-$15 range. And no, they don’t do BOGO sushi.
For my money, the best examples of the West Coast style are found under the Special Crudo heading. Tuna tartare with wasabi-spiked guacamole, say, served in a phyllo pastry cup. Or hamachi tiradito, a Japanese riff on a classic Peruvian ceviche. Or, my favorite to date, hirame carpaccio: pristine petals of fluke, barely warmed by a drizzle of hot sesame oil, and scattered across a chive-flecked tidal pool of yuzu and soy.
If only the kitchen consistently lived up to the standard set by the sushi bar. Not that it doesn’t show flashes of promise. It’s just that the level of execution repeatedly sets you up with an excellent dish, only to let you down with a sub-par one.
An order of mixed tempura is as good as any you’ve had in recent memory. But the batter crust on fried calamari is so thick you aren’t able to appreciate the curry flavor the menu description had you salivating over. Karaage delivers the goods with moist nuggets of crisp batter-fried chicken in a spicy-sweet glaze of sauce. But skewer-grilled pork belly and smoked salmon kushiyaki are both undercooked – the pork belly unappetizingly so, the salmon OK if you’re willing to think of it as almost-sashimi.
Same goes for the tempting selection of vegetable small plates. Sautéed shishito peppers, fried Brussels sprouts with wasabi vinaigrette, shichimi snap peas in spunky chile-spiked oil? More, please. Bland “corn vegetable croquettes” that are mostly potato, and green beans in a flaccid tempura batter? Not so much.
The miscues can’t be chalked up to an off night, either, since at least one of them cropped up in each of the three meals I’ve had at Basan. And a wait staff that’s as inconsistent as the kitchen doesn’t help matters.
Like anyone, I find this sort of hit-or-miss experience disappointing. But as a restaurant critic, it’s downright frustrating. Here’s a restaurant whose sushi chef is one of a mere handful in the Triangle from whom I’d happily order omakase, placing myself in his hands to make whatever he wants me to have. But it’s part of my job to distill the entire experience into a single star rating. In this case it’s a rating that, I have no doubt, some will see and decide to skip Basan without reading the review. (I can sympathize, because I’ve been guilty of doing the same thing when it comes to movie reviews.)
For those of you who have persevered to this point, here’s a bonus: Go to Basan for the sushi, and feel free to add at least a star to that rating.
359-220 Blackwell St., Durham; 919-797-9728
Rating: ☆☆ 1/2
Atmosphere: stylish modern pastiche of sleek scarlet and black framed in natural woods
Noise level: moderate
Service: widely variable
Recommended: sushi is the way to go (from the kitchen, try assorted tempura, karaage chicken, shishito peppers)
Open: Lunch Monday-Saturday, dinner nightly.
Other: full bar; accommodates children; good vegetarian selection; patio; parking on street and in nearby parking decks
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.