Just inside the door, sitting on the end of the sushi bar, the first thing that catches my eye is the list of daily specials, written in neon markers on a black dry erase board. Today’s list includes otoro (the prized fattiest part of the tuna belly), uni (sea urchin) and baby octopus. A couple of specialty rolls are also in the offing (the otoro makes an appearance here, too, where it’s paired with king crab and avocado in the Otoro Roll), as well as grilled cod with sweet miso sauce from the kitchen.
These days, such a list wouldn’t raise an eyebrow on Glenwood South or in downtown Durham. But Kumo’s location, in an obscure strip mall on the northern fringe of Fuquay-Varina, makes me change my plans. I’ve just stopped in to scope out the place, but decide to stay for a quick bite at the sushi bar.
It turns into a feast. As is invariably the case when I’m sitting at a sushi bar, I order more than I meant to. I order so lavishly, in fact, that the sushi chef starts me off with a complimentary dish of black pepper-crusted tuna, seared tataki-style and lightly dressed with a vibrant mango salsa.
The meal that follows would hold its own with what I’ve had at all but a handful of the best sushi bars in the Triangle.
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Sushi and sashimi are presented just one or two items at a time, so the fish can be savored at its ideal temperature, as soon as it’s formed. The procession of dishes comes in waves that alternate delicate and bold flavors, each round setting the stage for the next.
A few highlights: Simple nigiri – well-formed and amply portioned with clean, fresh-tasting fish (only a slightly dry yellowtail falls short of the ideal) – prime the palate. Uni, notorious for betraying its age by acquiring a taste that some have compared (charitably, in my opinion) to dirty socks, instead carries the sublime, bracing taste of the sea. Mackerel, another famously unforgiving fish, is firm with a salt-and-vinegar cure well-matched to the oily flesh.
And the finale, otoro: petals of pale pink, arranged like a rose in bloom, set atop a single shiso leaf and a cloud of daikon threads. Sure, the buttery texture of a few pieces was interrupted by the occasional fiber, a telltale sign that this is not the highest quality otoro. But it’s a rare treat nonetheless and fairly priced at $11.95 for a generous portion.
I don’t order any specialty rolls, but my front row view of the sushi chef in action confirms that they’re expertly assembled. The list offers a little over two dozen options, helpfully divided into sections labeled “Raw” and “Cooked.” Most are in the $11-$14 range (you’ve probably guessed by now that this is not a BOGO sort of place). If you want to try gilding the lily with the otoro roll, it’ll set you back $17.95.
As I leave, I can’t help but wonder: Is the kitchen’s game up to that of the sushi bar?
A few days later, I return with my wife to find out. Seated in Kumo’s compact, modestly furnished dining room, our meal gets off to a promising start with an exemplary shrimp and vegetable tempura. The accompanying dipping sauce – spicy mayo decorated with squiggles of eel sauce – comes as something of a surprise, but the tempura itself is light and crisp.
Seafood Dynamite, on the other hand, is a dud. The promised “salmon, crabmeat, red snapper, fish roe baked with spicy mayo and eel sauce” turns out to be mostly overcooked salmon topped with a sauce that fizzles – possibly because any spicy fire it may have had is extinguished by the load of panko that’s been dumped over the top.
Unable to resist just one encore dip into the waters of sushi bar fare, I order the Treasure Island. It proves to be aptly named: a melange of diced tuna, salmon and white tuna, beached on a drift of seaweed salad, encircled by a shoreline of overlapped avocado slices, and surrounded by a shallow sea of ponzu.
From the Hibachi & Teriyaki section (cooked in the kitchen; no teppanyaki tables here), we order salmon teriyaki and are rewarded with a classic rendering, well-executed. The Hot Noodles section yields a gratifyingly hearty dish of stir-fried soba with beef and broccoli in an umami bomb of a sauce. I’m at first confused by the noodles, which are pale and soft rather than the rough, brown buckwheat noodles I was expecting. I ask Kumo’s quietly gracious manager/hostess if perhaps ordinary wheat noodles have been substituted for soba. She explains that these are indeed light soba noodles. “We use them because many Americans don’t like the brown ones.”
The manager, it turns out, is Vicky Xue, half of the husband-and-wife team that opened Kumo in late 2014. Her husband, Terry Wang, is a sushi chef with more than 10 years of experience, most of it in New York. The couple first came to North Carolina a couple of years ago to help friends open a restaurant in Mocksville, and liked the state so much they decided to stay. Their search for a restaurant location led them to Fuquay-Varina, where Kumo has quickly become a popular destination for locals – and a hidden gem for anyone who pops in for a quick bite.
2916-112 N. Main St., Fuquay-Varina; 919-986-0983
Atmosphere: contemporary Asian on a budget
Noise level: low to moderate
Service: welcoming manager/hostess, mostly inexperienced wait staff
Recommended: sushi (check the specials board), tempura dishes, Treasure Island
Open: lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday
Other: beer, wine and sake; 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.