I wasn't feeling particularly open-minded the first time I pulled up in front of Hayashi, which opened last March in a drab strip mall anchored by a Food Lion on the outskirts of North Raleigh. Great, I thought, sushi for the budget-conscious.
I was encouraged when I opened the front door and was greeted by a friendly "Irashai!" of welcome from the staff and a dining room as serenely inviting as a Zen garden, framed in stone walls and bamboo. I took a seat at the tiny sushi bar and ordered a bottle of chilled sake from a solid list -- another promising sign.
I started cautiously, with seaweed salad and three variations on tuna sashimi: yellowtail, white and toro. All the fish proved excellent, the toro richly marbled and the white tuna notable for the carpaccio-like thinness of its cut, which served to emphasize the delicacy of its flesh.
The seaweed salad turned out to be two salads in one, a pretty side-by-side presentation of traditional sesame-dressed seaweed and ginger-dressed mesclun on a plate shaped like a ginkgo leaf.
Now confident, I ordered more boldly. Of all the tally marks I made on the sushi menu, none led to disappointment. But two in particular stood out.
An item described on the menu as "giant sweet shrimp/fried head" turned out to be a pair of nigiri sushi starring pristine raw shrimp, flanked by their deep-fried heads. The heads had been handled with such care that even their fragile whiskers (I think that's the technical term) were intact, but these are no mere garnishes. They're meant to be put in your mouth, where they're as delicately crisp as a potato chip and bursting with briny flavor.
Mackerel sushi, topped with a smidgen of grated ginger and chopped scallion, was also memorable. When I told the sushi chef that it was the freshest-tasting mackerel I'd ever had in a sushi bar, he said, "That's because we buy fresh mackerel, not pickled."
For a real treat, he added, I should come back on a Thursday or Friday, when they have usually just gotten in Kona kanpachi, a sustainably raised variety of yellowtail, from Hawaii.
It wasn't long before I returned -- this time on a Thursday, with my designated sushi buddy (so designated because he is as passionate about sushi as I am).
Kona kanpachi, its buttery, ivory-colored flesh fanned out in petal-thin slices on a shallow pool of ponzu, was indeed a rare treat. I ordered the "giant sweet shrimp/fried head" again to show my friend what I had been raving about -- and to see if it was as good as I remembered. It was.
Pretty much everything else lived up to my now high expectations. Highlights included a lavish pairing of toro sashimi and tuna tartare, a side-by-side sampling of freshwater and saltwater eel sushi, and a stunning presentation of hamachi kama, part of the yellowtail cheek served as sushi and part broiled.
A third visit, this time to the dining room, focused on food from the kitchen. Except for katsudon (fried pork cutlet), which arrived lukewarm, everything I sampled ranged from above average (tempura) to excellent (broiled mackerel and a teppanyaki shrimp and rib-eye combo).
For my money, though, it's the sushi chef who is the hero of the Hayashi story. And that's a story I'd gladly read again and again.