When I first heard that there was a new restaurant in Durham called Sushi Love, I confess I thought the name was too cute by half. Now that I've eaten there a couple of times, though, I realize that it suits the place to a T.
For starters, the name caters unabashedly to Western culture (no references to samurai, Mount Fuji or ancient imperial cities, thank you very much). That's perfectly in line with the restaurant's casual contemporary vibe, from the R&B reverberating off the exposed ductwork in the dining room to the sleek, brushed-aluminum tables and chairs on the patio, where seating is at a premium in fair weather.
The restaurant's name is a reliable guide to what's best to order, too. The kitchen offers a selection of traditional and contemporary pan-Asian fare, such as Thai curry, Szechwan scallops, miso-seared sea bass and the Saigon street noodles of owner Thai Nguyen's native Vietnam.
But it's the sushi bar where Nguyen earned his culinary stripes (he has owned a number of Japanese restaurants, among them Mount Fuji and Shiki Sushi). And it's the sushi bar that most consistently delivers satisfaction on the plate.
It isn't surprising, given Sushi Love's Western orientation, that the extensive list of house specialty sushi rolls is popular. Deservedly so, based on a limited sampling whose highlights included a Blue Devil roll (shrimp tempura, cucumber and spicy mayo topped with seared filet mignon, ponzu sauce and scallions) and a Crazy roll (shrimp tempura, cucumber and spicy tuna, topped with spicy mayo). The tempura-battered Acapulco roll (jalapeños, cream cheese and salmon) would have been on the money, too, if the tempura hadn't gone soft.
Sushi aficionados won't be disappointed, either, with the selection of nigiri sushi, sashimi and hand rolls. The offering includes all the usual suspects, as well as a number of less common options such as green mussel and a commendably fresh sea urchin. Toro, the prized fatty tuna belly, is sometimes available, depending on the season. With the exception of a surprisingly fibrous tuna (not toro), everything I sampled was skillfully (not to mention generously) cut and tasted irreproachably fresh.
Just be sure to order an even number of items, unless you don't mind overpaying for that last odd-numbered one. Sushi Love, like a growing number of Japanese restaurants, sells all nigiri sushi and rolls at a "special" buy-one-get-one-free price. But the "official" prices printed on the menu are artificially inflated, which makes the BOGO offer still a bargain but not the steal it appears to be at first glance. Unless, that is, you consider $7 to be a competitive price for a California roll.
The kitchen is certainly capable of turning out a rewarding meal, though in my experience the going can be hit or miss. Basil fish is a pleasant -- albeit tame -- contemporary riff on a classic Thai dish, serving up a lightly battered, deep-fried red snapper filet over a colorful medley of steamed vegetables (the baby bok choy is an especially nice touch). Though the menu describes the basil sauce as "spicy," only the most timid of palates would find it challenging.
Salt and pepper calamari are satisfying, too, as long as you're not expecting the traditional Szechwan version of the dish. In this case, the squid is deep-fried in a light batter similar to tempura and served over a cloud of fried rice noodles with a slightly sweet soy dipping sauce on the side.
Saigon street noodles, on the other hand, carry the Westernization thing too far. The dish is overwhelmingly noodles, with just enough of the tender stir-fried beef and spring roll to make you hunger for more and so little of the lemongrass sauce that you find yourself wishing they'd put some bottles of fish sauce and Sriracha on the tables.
Service is attentive, and the atmosphere is warmly inviting. The patio, a rarity in a Japanese restaurant, is especially welcome. All in all, Sushi Love delivers an enjoyable dining experience. Just keep the restaurant's name in mind when ordering.