It's interesting when people talk about sushi being fresh, as if sometimes it isn't. Praising a sushi restaurant for its fresh fish is like rejoicing over your chicken being cooked thoroughly. Fish should be fresh, especially if eaten raw.
At Sake Bomb, Durham's newest Asian bistro and sushi joint, the fish is fresh. This is not remarkable. What is remarkable is that it is hard to find a special roll on the menu that does not contain cream cheese, tempura, mayonnaise or spicy tuna. I find this frustrating, if not a cop-out, but that is common in these parts. However, the most disappointing aspect of the sushi was the temperature: cold. There was no tantalizing interplay between the slightly warm rice and the slightly cool fish. It might as well have been prepared ahead of time and kept in the fridge, though I know it was made fresh.
It is also worth noting that you might feel underdressed for the occasion when you first walk through the door. From the outside, the blacked-out windows make you wonder whether a restaurant is within. But inside, a glistening, gorgeous chandelier hangs in the foyer, and the large space drips in tones of champagne, scarlet and black. Things sparkle—even the pencil you use to mark your sushi choices does—and wall-mounted, backlit water features bubble. Yet there are several large television screens throughout, raising the question of what sort of crowd Sake Bomb hopes to attract. Eddie Money might serenade you through your appetizers while the Steelers try to hold it together against, well, whomever they are playing. Still, I was surprised how as the meal went on, the more I enjoyed the décor.
Once accustomed to the bling and scale of the space, you can focus on the large menu. The chef/owner is Vietnamese, which is clear in the offerings containing lemongrass and curry. Thit nuong cuon ($5) is a traditional Vietnamese spring roll described on the menu as a grilled beef roll. It includes char-grilled beef rolled in rice paper with crispy rice noodles, lettuce, bean sprouts and fresh basil, and is served with a peanut sauce.
I wish I had ordered this, for the Imperial Rolls (crispy spring rolls filled with ground pork, shrimp, onions and taro) were a letdown. The two rolls cost $5, and in trying to eat them I wound up with a wad of dry, porky filling that was hard to swallow.
For the Vietnamese lemongrass entrée I opted for beef, per the waiter's suggestion, and found this dish to be good, but hardly memorable. Beware that the fried rice comes with a bit of egg and onion and nothing else. It's drab to look at, but satisfying.
Which is why it was with shock and delight that my dining companions and I dove into the Crispy Fish ($22). This Saigon-style whole, fried snapper came with a chili garlic sauce, and it was hard to stop eating once we started. The flanks of the fish had been scored before being fried, and the skin was succulent. With a maraschino cherry where the eyeball would have been and fried basil leaves as garnish, the snapper was soon down to its slender bones. This is the kind of dish that gives you flavor amnesia about earlier disappointments.
The coconut-lime cake we ordered to-go, and for some reason it was completely frozen. This made me wonder if it was made in-house or not, but either way it was quite moist, with a fine balance of flavors—once it thawed.
The menu features dishes with Vietnamese, Thai, Mongolian, Chinese and Japanese influences, like many restaurants that try to be everything to everyone. The snapper inspired me to return for the bun bo nuong ($14), a grilled beef vermicelli noodle dish with bean sprouts, lettuce, mint and a homemade vinaigrette sauce topped with crushed peanuts—or perhaps the Mongolian beef. So, best of luck, and may you find your own crispy snapper on which to dine.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Miss the mark."