Warning: If you're squeamish, you might want to skip over this first paragraph. Still reading? OK, don't say I didn't warn you. Haru owner/sushi chef Fang Yongxing brought the live lobster (which I'd ordered 24 hours in advance, as required) out from the kitchen and held it up for my dining companion and me to examine. It was of medium size and lively. With no further ado, he placed the critter on the counter and quickly dispatched it by -- here's your last chance to look away -- decapitating it.
A few minutes later, chef Fang presented us with the lobster, prepared two ways: the head and claws cooked, and the tail meat as sashimi, deftly cut and reassembled on the shell. Translucent slices of lemon, a sprinkling of tobiko (flying fish roe), and golden coins of tempura sweet potato completed a presentation that was as stunning to look at as it was indisputably fresh.
Lobster sashimi isn't the only trick chef Fang picked up in the sushi bars of Tokyo and New York, where he worked for 15 years before coming to Raleigh. Among other offerings you'd be hard-pressed to find in the Triangle are fatty salmon and fatty yellowtail, as well as the prized fatty belly of the bluefin tuna known as toro. Talk about an irresistible side-by-side taste comparison for a sushi aficionado.
And here's another: mackerel, which is lightly pickled to counter its naturally strong flavor and is commonly available, and the relatively rare (at least in these parts) Spanish mackerel, whose flesh is mild by comparison and needs no pickling. And another: a mix-and-match salmon sampler that might include (in addition to the belly, which is a must) salmon, smoked salmon and spicy salmon nigiri; salmon roe sushi; Cucumber Land Roll, featuring salmon, crab, avocado, roe and rice vinegar sauce in a cucumber wrapper; and a spicy tartare of salmon, served on a bed of seaweed and topped with a quail egg. Might as well throw in a salmon skin hand roll while you're at it, as Haru (unlike most area sushi bars) offers a printed menu of hand rolls.
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You say your taste runs more to tuna? Then your options are even broader, with more than a dozen choices covering the spectrum from white tuna tartare to black pepper tuna tataki -- and that's not counting the 44 listings under the Special Sushi Roll heading, many of which contain tuna.
Into fish roe? Feast on six varieties, from tobiko to masago (the roe of capelin, a type of smelt). Regardless of your sushi preference, if you can't find it here, odds are you won't find it in the Triangle. Nor, for that matter, are you likely to find the fish fresher or the sushi assembled with more skill.
If the food coming out of the Haru kitchen isn't as impressive as the sushi bar fare, it's nonetheless generally a cut above the norm. The jumbo shrimp in a hibachi entree offering may be perfectly cooked one night, and the rib-eye juicy, with the welcome (and pleasantly surprising) rosy tinge of medium-rare. On another evening, the same cut of beef is a bit dry despite being cooked in the sweet, garlicky brown sauce of yakiniku.
Tempura can be likewise variable, the crust ineffably light and translucent one time, slightly oily the next. But not so oily, mind you, that my partner and I weren't able to polish off an appetizer of otherwise impeccable tempura shrimp and assorted vegetables.
Haru is a jewel box of a restaurant, the dining room just large enough to accommodate the 12-seat sushi bar and a handful of tables and chairs. A contemporary Asian decor in muted earth tones with a cherry blossom motif sets a mood as serenely inviting as a Zen garden. Combined with the intimate scale of the space, the understated decor assures that, wherever you're seated, the focal point is the sushi bar. That's as it should be.