City Market Sushi in downtown Raleigh features a menu that enthusiastically explores the potential of an evolving contemporary Japanese cuisine while remaining respectful of its traditional roots
By Greg Cox
Originally published 6/22/2017
The presentation that sits on the table before you might well be a display in an art gallery – a mixed-media composition, you might call it, framed in six compartments of a blonde wood shadowbox. In each compartment is a rustic earthenware bowl, and in each bowl a different carefully assembled edible creation.
In one bowl, three pieces of sashimi – salmon, yellowtail and tuna – are a study in hues of coral and ivory, laid down on a canvas of shiso leaf and daikon threads. In another, bite-size morsels of eel nestle on a bed of rice, glistening under the mahogany sheen of eel sauce and a spangling of black and white sesame seeds. In the third and fourth bowls, a half-moon lemon slice brightens a pair of nigiri; and three pieces of nori-wrapped tuna roll form a compact constellation against the bowl’s dark crackle glaze of a sky.
The remaining two bowls are filled with yin and yang halves of squid and seaweed salads and a kaleidoscope of mixed pickles, ginger and wasabi.
You’ve ordered one of the lunch boxes at City Market Sushi. Your selection is fairly traditional in composition, but others nudge the Japanese bento box concept into trendier territory with the likes of sliders (soft shell or “Kobe”), crispy pork belly and ahi poke bowl. There’s even a mini tofu burger, part of an all-vegetarian box.
It doesn’t take long to discover that there’s substance behind the show, from clean, fresh-tasting fish and shellfish to the wasabi that your waiter confirms is indeed the real thing, not the green-dyed horseradish paste that usually passes for the stuff. And this, you’re thinking, is just lunch. How can they top this in the evening?
With more of the same, as it turns out. Quality ingredients and artful presentation (even by Japanese restaurant standards) are recurring themes throughout a menu that enthusiastically explores the potential of an evolving contemporary Japanese cuisine while remaining respectful of its traditional roots.
Dinner might start with Cajun-spiced fried calamari with sriracha aioli, or with an exemplary tempura that departs from tradition only in its equal portion of shrimp and asparagus. You could stay on Japanese home turf with the familiar pork gyoza, or sail across the Pacific for a colorful salad of ahi poke, avocado, dragonfruit and translucent slices of kumquat on a bed of spring greens drizzled with a bracing wasabi yuzu dressing.
Or find a happy middle ground with an order of crispy pork belly served with a Japanese-Korean mash-up of a gochujang-ponzu dipping sauce, or an exquisite contemporary medley of roasted eggplant, shrimp and red peppers.
Adventurous palates will find further rewards in a separate section of the menu devoted to modern riffs on sashimi. In addition to the hamachi jalapeño that’s increasingly seen at Japanese restaurants, enticements include red snapper carpaccio, salmon poke and maduro tataki: barely seared tuna dressed in ponzu, sesame oil, Japanese seven-spice blend and crispy onion.
That’s all well and good, I can hear the purists among you say, but all those fancy presentations can hide a lot of flaws. What about classic sashimi, where the only thing between you and the fish is a whisper of wasabi and soy sauce?
To which I’m happy to reply, after sampling widely across an impressively broad offering ranging from fat-beribboned salmon to exceptionally tender octopus, that I have yet to be disappointed. Even mackerel, all too often too vinegary or too fishy (or both), is on the money here. Bonus points for the light sear that tempers the mackerel’s characteristic oily intensity.
I can’t speak for the uni, because it wasn’t available the night I tried to order it. Sushi chef Shin Chang, who owns the restaurant with his brother, Jin (the two were formerly owners of Sushi Lulu in North Raleigh), and business partner/caterer Don Yoo, explains that they don’t serve uni when it’s not up to his standards. I don’t know know if you’ve ever tasted uni past its prime, but if you have, you’ll agree wholeheartedly with that philosophy.
Quality comes at a price, naturally, and à la carte sashimi adds up quickly at $10 to $12 per four-piece order. The sashimi “omakase” (quotation marks mine because the word is used in its literal “chef’s choice” sense here, not in the commonly accepted “sit at the sushi bar and let the chef serve you piece by piece” sense) is a relative bargain at $35 for 15 generous pieces, or $70 for 30.
If that still seems a little steep for your budget, the nigiri “omakase” will only set you back $22 for eight pieces, or $34 for 12. Also under the same “Chef Choice Sushi Plate” heading is the “chirashi” plate, another dish that takes poetic license with the accepted definition of its name. Order this one, whose name means “scattered,” and traditionally serves up an assortment of sashimi casually strewn across a bowl of rice, and what you’ll get is an elegant presentation similar to that of the lunch boxes.
It should be obvious by now that City Market Sushi does not sell BOGO rolls. But if specialty rolls are your thing, you won’t be disappointed with a list of some dozen and a half rolls ranging from Panko Scallop (spicy tuna and avocado wrapped in a diaphanous sheet of soy paper, topped with panko-crusted scallop, tobiko and a sweet soy reduction) to Mango Unagi (crab, mango and avocado inside; barbecue eel, scallion and masago on the outside, glazed with eel sauce).
Service is uniformly welcoming, though familiarity with the menu could be better in some cases, as could the level of attentiveness. Still, City Market Sushi is a small place, and you shouldn’t have trouble flagging down a server. Located in the former Troy Mezze Lounge space, City Market Sushi is an intimate restaurant with a dozen or so tables and a seven-seat sushi bar. The decor is a blend of contemporary and traditional Japanese styles done in muted earth tones – a suitably restrained backdrop for the food that is clearly the star of the show.
City Market Sushi
315 Blake St., Raleigh
Atmosphere: intimate, casual, contemporary Asian in muted tones
Noise level: low
Service:uniformly welcoming; variably knowledgeable and attentive
Recommended: lunch boxes, tempura, calamari, eggplant, ahi poke salad, sashimi and nigiri (à la carte or “omakase”)
Open: Lunch Tuesday-Friday, dinner Monday-Saturday
Reservations: not accepted
Other: full bar (excellent sake and Japanese beer selections); accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; parking on street and in the City Market lot at the corner of Person and Martin Streets.
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.