Though it is possible to get freshly made sushi at your local Kroger, and even less freshly made sushi at places like Costco and Trader Joe's, there is a major difference between freshly made and fresh tasting sushi.
Sushi that is made at 10 a.m. and sits in a container for hours is usually the opposite of fresh. The Asian-inspired design of the packaging will not compensate for what is missing inside. Even if you buy it within minutes, there is a good chance the roe will not pop in your mouth, the nori will be damp and therefore chewy, and the rice will be (shudderingly) cold. The fish will also be too cold to enjoy immediately, because sushi was never meant to be consumed fresh from a refrigerated display.
Part of the culinary point of eating sushi is in the interplay between texture and temperature. The rice should be slightly warm, the fish slightly cool and the combination of both should delight the tongue. A sushi roll that was rolled hours earlier has melded flavors, and unlike a lasagna, or even barbecue, which tastes better the longer it sits, this is not so with, say, raw salmon, rice and seaweed.
I'd be lying if I said I never resort to purchasing sushi at a major grocery store. I obviously have some experience in this department to write about it in such sordid detail. But this is more indicative of how powerful sushi, or rather, the memory of good sushi, can be than it is of my sushi judgment. I will eat mediocre, cold, chewy salmon rolls in the hopes they will remind my palate of the sushi at places like Waraji in Raleigh. There was a delicious piece of white tuna nigiri I had one night at what is usually a forgettable Mt. Fuji in Durham that has yet to be equaled; I order that particular piece of nigiri every opportunity I get.
A few complaints about local sushi: enough with the cream cheese, spicy mayo and spicy tuna. If there were more "special rolls" that did not possess any of those ingredients, my mouth would be a happier place. All of those features are a cheap ploy aimed at tempting a remedial American sushi palate. And a word on the buy one get one free phenomenon: Though it is better than nothing, if there were a place in the Triangle that cut the bill in half, rather than charging for the top most expensive items, this place would be packed. No one wants to be so fiscally penalized for trying out a $14 spider roll when the bulk of the order is $4 nigiri.
Here is a rundown of a few Triangle sushi joints—those that seem to have set themselves apart in some way. I know there will be outrage over the places that are omitted, but this is by no means an all-inclusive list. Add your favorites in the Comments section below.
Waraji (warajijapaneserestaurant.com) This place is often voted best sushi in the Triangle in the INDY's annual readers' poll. A quick glance at the special roll menu and you can see that many do not have any of the aforementioned no-no ingredients. It is known for being highly authentic.
Sushi Blues (sushibluescafe.com) If you like to listen to blues and jazz while eating raw fish, then this is your kind of place. They offer some twists on traditional riffs, such as their house salad. Rather than serve a ginger salad made with iceberg lettuce and a few dry carrot shavings, their lush green mix comes with strawberries, and you can opt for a wasabi dressing as well.
The Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar (thecowfish.com) Though this place does traditional sushi and traditional burgers, it also features a hybrid with its "burgushi" items. Cooked meat items (cow, lamb, pig, etc.) are fashioned into rolls, and raw fish ingredients appear on burgers. Think a tuna and bacon sandwich, or surf and turf sushi roll. This is the perfect place to bring people who don't like sushi.
Orchid Japanese Restaurant (orchidjapanesebuffet.com) All you need to know is that this place is home to a $24.95 dinner and $16.95 lunch from its all-you-can-eat sushi (and non-sushi) menu.
Other excellent choices: Sono (sonoraleigh.com), Sushi One (sushionenc.com), Sushi Thai (sushithaicary.com) and Tasu Asian Bistro Sushi & Bar (shikinc.com) in Raleigh and Cary, which was voted Best Sushi in the 2013 INDY readers' poll. (See Shiki Asian Bistro Sushi & Bar under Durham.)
City Kitchen (citykitchenchapelhill.com) What is noteworthy about this place is that there is sushi on the menu at all, specifically on the dinner menu. With the rest of the offerings being more traditional and Southern in nature, the sushi menu is a nice surprise and something other non-Asian restaurants might want to consider.
Other excellent choices: Oishii (oishiiroll.com)
Akai Hana (akaihana.com) This place is known for being pricier than other area sushi joints but also über fresh and tasty. For some reason, the buy one get one free deal is only applicable at its Morehead City location. Boo.
Vine Sushi & Thai (vinesushiandthai.com) Located a block from Duke's East Campus, what distinguishes this place is that it offers a variety of sushi rolls in clusters at a value of three for $9 and four for $12. Most tantalizing might be the fact they deliver, and any deals offered in-house are also honored as take-out.
Shiki Asian Bistro Sushi & Bar (shikinc.com) The original Shiki began in Durham near The Streets at Southpoint, and it was in that unassuming strip mall that one of the best things to happen to local sushi was born: buy one get one free, or rather, buy six and only pay for the three priciest. The owners have also opened under a second moniker, Tasu, in Cary and Raleigh.
This article appeared in print with the headline "In the raw: A sushi roundup."