Food & Drink

Review: Sushi Mon’s thoughtful touches show diners the Japanese restaurant aims high

Raleigh restaurant Sushi Mon’s X-O Tuna with truffle aioli, garlic chip, pink peppercorn and chive.
Raleigh restaurant Sushi Mon’s X-O Tuna with truffle aioli, garlic chip, pink peppercorn and chive. jleonard@newsobserver.com

Entering Sushi Mon, you’re greeted warmly and asked whether you’d prefer to sit at the sushi bar or a table. If you choose a table and have a purse, the host will provide a purse hanger for the table so you don’t have to set your Michael Kors bag on the floor.

Votive candles are already lit, even if you’ve arrived early in the evening, spreading their warm glow over lustrous wood tabletops. At each place, ebony lacquered chopsticks sit next to paper napkins so soft and heavy, that at first you think they’re linen, each printed with an “embroidery” cherry blossom sprig or rose stem.

These are the first of many little touches you’ll encounter throughout the meal, subtle but unmistakeable clues that Sushi Mon’s aim is much higher than your average Japanese restaurant.

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Raleigh restaurant Sushi Mon’s 24 Hour Pork Belly. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

With very few exceptions, the experience hits that ambitious target. The sushi bar scores multiple bulls-eyes, from flawless sashimi to more elaborate (but never overwrought) creations. A pair of oysters on the half shell, splashed with a mignonette-bright Asian salsa, comes to mind.

Also X-O tuna, as luxurious as its name implies, with truffle aioli and a festive spangle of pink peppercorns and chives. And an off-menu presentation of uni, nestling like yin and yang with salmon roe in a small bowl, punctuated with a dot of freshly grated wasabi.

The nigiri omakase at Sushi Mon isn’t omakase in the conventional sense of individual pieces served one at a time at the sushi bar. But don’t let that stop you from treating yourself to a memorable multi-course extravaganza (which, unlike traditional omakase, is also available in the dining room).

First you’ll be served a bowl of miso soup riddled with tatters of cabbage and salmon, a refreshing departure from tradition.

An eight-piece nigiri sampler comes next — all at one time, neatly lined up along a narrow platter, but living up to the “chef’s choice” spirit of omakase. Highlights of a recent sampler include fatty salmon from Scotland, amberjack from Hawaii and yellowtail from Japan. Each piece is exemplary and dainty garnishes — thyme sprig, petunia blossom, translucent-thin slice of radish, here and there a dab of pickled wasabi — pick up the thread of thoughtful little touches that you’ve come to expect by now.

A hand roll (whose distinctive cylinder shape allows for a more generous filling than the traditional cone) follows the nigiri. A delicate, custardy cube of tamago (the classic sushi bar take on an omelet) brings the omakase feast to a subtly sweet conclusion.

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Raleigh restaurant Sushi Mon has an assortment of nigiri. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Sushi Mon’s selection of house specialty rolls is brief (just a dozen listings) but varied, with options ranging from the familiar Rainbow Roll to the Mon Special (soft shell crab, shrimp tempura, tuna, salmon and yellowtail with a soy glaze and spicy aioli). A recent presentation of the Ultimate Shrimp and Scallop roll fell apart when picked up — a rare misstep. That same night, a Baked Salmon roll — a curveball of a roll with cream cheese, pickled raisins and jalapeños and crisp Brussels sprouts leaves — was a more than ample consolation.

The miso soup that kicks off the nigiri omakase is the first sign that the kitchen doesn’t intend to play second fiddle to the sushi bar. Except for an occasional off note — chewy calamari, “crispy juicy” chicken that is neither — the kitchen does in fact play a pleasing tune.

An eel bun, one of a dozen or so listings under the Izakaya heading, is on point. So is a small plate pairing of 24-hour pork belly and a sous vide egg with asparagus brown butter — a veritable symphony of flavors and unctuous texture. And Sushi Mon’s exquisite take on broiled fish collar (kama) raises the bar with an expanded selection of fish that might include sea bream and salmon in addition to the usual yellowtail. Bonus points for breaking the collar down into manageable parts.

Kudos also to the bar for not overextending itself by jumping onto the craft cocktail bandwagon. Instead, Sushi Mon’s selection of premium liquor highballs is an inspired match for the menu. A brief but thoughtfully chosen list of draft beer, wine and sake rounds out the offering.

Popcorn honey toast, an unlikely presentation of toasted Hawaiian bread topped with whipped cream, caramel popcorn and honey, was the pick of a limited dessert offering last time I dined at Sushi Mon. Look for an expanded selection, now that owner/chef Chris Lee has hired pastry chef Sung Yu, who previously worked at An Asian Cuisine in Cary and should be on board by the time you read this.

Lee, a native of Korea, comes to Raleigh by way of San Francisco, where he honed his skills for five years before setting out on his own. He has quickly taken to his new home.

Lee will proudly tell you that most of the furnishings in Sushi Mon’s urban-chic dining room were made by artisan friends he has made since moving to North Carolina. That includes the massive jagged edge granite slab on the wall behind the sushi bar, whose top is made of the same polished granite; tables whose honeyed wood grain tops are too beautiful to be covered with linens; and, on the wall in an alcove at the end of the long bar, three panels covered in live moss.

Lee has to water the moss regularly, an activity he likens to maintaining a small garden. And as we all know, anyone who plants a garden has no intention of moving away soon. Lucky us.

Sushi Mon

105 Friendly Drive, Suite 101, Raleigh

919-322-0002

sushimonraleigh.com

Cuisine: Japanese

Rating: 3 1/2 stars

Prices: $$$

Atmosphere: urban-rustic

Noise level: moderate

Service: welcoming, attentive for the most part

Recommended: eel bun, oysters, pork belly, kama, bake salmon roll, uni with salmon roe (if available), nigiri omakase

Open: Lunch Monday-Saturday, dinner nightly.

Reservations: accepted

Other: full bar; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; parking on street and in the Dan Allen deck.

The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.

The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.

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