Restaurant News & Reviews

Dining review: M Sushi lives up to stratospheric expectations

M Sushi owner/sushi chef Mike Lee’s knowledge of sushi culture is encyclopedic. Lee works in the open kitchen of the Durham restaurant on Thursday, June 30, 2016.
M Sushi owner/sushi chef Mike Lee’s knowledge of sushi culture is encyclopedic. Lee works in the open kitchen of the Durham restaurant on Thursday, June 30, 2016.

To say that my mouth watered in anticipation as I sat down at the sushi bar for the Grand Omakase experience at M Sushi would be an understatement.

I’ve been a fan of owner/sushi chef Mike Lee, who is also chef/partner in the excellent Sono in Raleigh, for nearly a decade. M Sushi, which Lee opened in January in downtown Durham, promised to raise the, um, bar for sushi bars in the Triangle with an uncompromising insistence on premium fresh seafood.

A previous visit to M Sushi, a few weeks before my omakase adventure, fully lived up to that promise. A small plate presentation of hamachi in a whole grain mustard ponzu sauce punctuated with serrano chiles, cilantro and shallot reaffirmed my impression from Sono that Lee has an instinct for walking on the wild side without getting lost in a thicket of overkill.

Chirashi was an artfully composed stained glass window of glistening fish in pastel shades of pink and creamy white, spangled with radish slices, Japanese pickles, red-veined sorrel leaves and golden pearls of tobiko. Even in that humble dish (“chirashi” literally means “scattered,” and the fish is typically the sushi chef’s way of using up odd-shaped pieces), the garnishing dab of wasabi was the real deal. At M Sushi, real wasabi – not the ubiquitous, green-dyed-horseradish imposter – is the standard, not an option.

So is miso soup, made from scratch in small quantities. Sublime in its simplicity and at the same time subtly complex, Lee’s miso soup will spoil you for the instant versions routinely served elsewhere.

His Grand Omakase is a 10-course extravaganza (a seven-course “light” version is also offered, as well as a 13-piece progression of nigiri) for $75. To be precise, it’s something of a hybrid between omakase and a chef’s tasting menu, differing from traditional omakase in that the courses are listed on the printed menu. Except for a couple of dishes, which may vary according to the market, you know in advance what you’re getting.

Still, I was looking forward to the chef’s description of dishes (his knowledge of sushi culture, from fish varieties to grades of sushi rice, is encyclopedic) as he presented them. So I was disappointed that Lee himself wasn’t behind the sushi bar when we arrived for our omakase experience.

And indeed, apart from an announcement at the beginning of the meal that fresh nama uni (an ultra-premium grade, taken from living sea urchins) was being offered that night for a $12 surcharge, elaboration was minimal from the other sushi chefs as they presented dishes.

The food, on the other hand, lived up to my stratospheric expectations from start to finish. Here are a few highlights:

Scallops with aji amarillo: Buttery nuggets of shellfish in a vibrant sauce that gets its peppery zing from Peruvian yellow chiles; a token of Lee’s admiration for Nikkei cuisine, a fusion of Japanese cuisine with that of Peru, the Western Hemisphere’s pre-eminent exemplar of raw fish culture.

Nigiri: Kona kanpachi (amberjack) from Hawaii, salmon belly and yellowtail belly – all flawlessly fresh (“most of our fish was swimming in the ocean two days ago,” says general manager Eric Thomas). Expert knife work and exemplary vinegared rice suggest that the nigiri omakase would be a sushi purist’s dream.

Ikura don: Even nama uni can’t upstage the rest of the cast in a deluxe dish that also includes snow crab, salmon and salmon roe (ikura), served over rice and showered with flakes of toasted nori.

Sawagani: Flash-fried fresh water crabs, no bigger than potato chips and just as crispy. Eat them shell and all. Don’t miss the dab of crab roux underneath each crab.

Eel steamed bun: A piece of freshwater eel – tender, sweet and fat as a sumo wrestler’s thumb – glazed with eel sauce and tucked into a steamed bun with crispy shards of salmon skin.

Tamago: “Dessert,” you might say, and indeed, some have mistaken this delicately sweet baked version of the classic Japanese omelet for sponge cake. If other renditions have left you wondering how tamago could be considered an ultimate test of a sushi chef’s skills, here’s your answer.

M Sushi is a deceptively inconspicuous restaurant with an entrance across Holland Street (more of an alley, really) from The Durham Hotel. Inside, the look is true to Japanese tradition of rustic austerity with a sushi bar hewn from African bubinga wood running the length of the narrow dining room. Walk-ins are welcome, but be advised that on any given night, half or more of the 18 seats at the bar may be marked “Reserved.”

You can also rest assured that Mike Lee will in all probability be behind the sushi bar. He says he’s there 90 percent of the time, and adds that he’s working on training his sushi crew (a couple of whom are not as far along on the English language learning curve as they clearly are with their sushi knife skills) to be more interactive with customers.

As it turns out, the night of our Grand Omakase adventure, Mike Lee was making a run to the airport to pick up fresh fish, which he personally inspects – and rejects if it isn’t up to his exacting standards. Based on my experience at M Sushi, I’m happy to accept that excuse.

311 Holland St., Durham; 919-908-9266

Cuisine: Japanese

Rating: 1/2

Prices: $$$$

Atmosphere: traditional Japanese rustic austerity

Noise level: low to moderate

Service: knowledgeable and efficient

Recommended: Omakase is a memorable experience, but so is ordering a la carte; take your pick, you can’t miss.

Open: lunch Tuesday-Friday, dinner Tuesday-Saturday.

Reservations: recommended

Other: full bar; get a sitter; minimal vegetarian selection; parking on East Chapel Hill Street and West Morgan Street

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.