In the time it takes for me to choose an Instagram filter, Toshio Sakamaki can turn a fish into a skeleton.
Basan, the just-opened Japanese restaurant by the Durham Performing Arts Center, recently hosted a preview dinner for local media. Mid-meal, Chef Sakamaki brought the sushi bar to us: cutting board, knife and all. The local fluke looked glorious on my iPhone. As Sakamaki wiped his blade, I thought, Amaro? No filter? When I looked up, he was done. And I wondered why people would go to DPAC when they could walk across the street and watch this.
You don't need a press pass to see the action. Basan turns the typical Japanese restaurant design on its head. With no wall between the sushi bar and kitchen, diners' eyes can feast on everything. The sights, from buttery slabs of salmon to steaming pots of ramen broth, are mesmerizing.
Basan marks the sixth venture and Durham debut for Eschelon Experiences, the restaurant group behind Faire and The Oxford.
"We saw the culinary scene exploding here," said founder Gaurav Patel, "and we wanted to be part of that."
Though the restaurant is still partially under construction, dining at Basan feels like attending a wedding planner's wedding. Its private event space, as well as traditional kotatsu area, both await completion. Yet everything else, from décor to service, feels as honed and sharpened as Sakamaki's knife.
The space is expansive—seating 85, including the cocktail bar, sushi bar, and dining room—and every inch is deliberately decorated. Bold red walls and rustic wood accents, abstract ceiling fixtures and chic dim lighting.
Then there's the art.
In Japanese mythology, basan means fire-breathing chicken. This playful namesake serves as a motif throughout the restaurant, thanks to original work from local artists. The pieces—paper cutouts by Haley Serrano, a colossal wood sculpture by Mike Laut—make fire-breathing dragons seem so last year.
Basan's food similarly walks the line between whimsical and upscale. At first glance, the menu resembles the BOGO formula: cheesy names for rolls, like Shark Bite and Screaming O. But a closer look reveals a more complex operation. Nods to the American sushi craze—cream cheese and spicy aioli—accompany originality.
Take the kizami wasabi. The "wasabi" you expect is, actually, dyed Shrek-green horseradish. Basan makes a point to offer the real deal—a vinegary, pungent relish that will make you (OK, me) cry, tears of spice and glee. Note: The condiment costs $4, but try it at least once.
On our table's sushi boat, the captain had to be the Hurricane: a tempura shrimp roll wrapped in latke-like shoestring potatoes. Though the eel nigiri—smoky, not at all drowned in sauce—ranked a close second. Special rolls range from $9 to $15.
Yet to say Basan is only about the sushi would minimize the extensive menu, which the new kitchen seems to have a tight grip on. Cooked items not to be missed include the pork belly kushiyaki, miso-braised ribs, Okinawa potatoes, and, yes, Brussels sprouts. Fried, then dressed in wasabi vinaigrette, they're good enough to spur a chopstick battle among food writers.
Oh, and that fluke Sakamaki butchered? Called hirame carpaccio, the dish is finished with hot sesame oil, brightened by yuzu, flecked with ginger and garlic. The marinade screeched as it hit the plate, slightly "cooking" the fish. It was so luscious, so captivating, I forgot all about Instagram.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Picture perfect."