Durham, N.C. — When Chef Mike Lee opened M Sushi last January, little did we know it was just the beginning of his ingredient-focused ventures.
The restaurant highlights seafood and sushi, and that's the realm Mike has the most experience in as the chef at Raleigh’s Sono. “If you ask any sushi chef, their ultimate goal is to set up a dedicated sushi restaurant,” Mike said. “It takes a lot of work and [the restaurants] are very, very small.”
M Sushi is just that, in a narrow room on the lower level of the East Chapel Hill Street building across the alley from The Durham Hotel. An even more compact footprint, however, belongs to his new restaurant just around the corner: M Kokko. The two restaurants share a kitchen, making it easy for waiters and cooks to move back and forth. With only 20 seats, M Kokko is the place where Mike experiments with the next protein group in his restaurant vision: chicken.
“I knew chicken was going to be the hardest,” Mike said. "The simplest things are the most difficult.”
As you enter the space, you’ll notice a clipboard – Mike instructs customers to write down their names and how many people are in the party and then stick around (he’s currently planning seating outside for guests who are waiting), and a server will come find you when your table is ready. Or, if you see a long line or list, “come in and place an order for takeout,” Mike said.
On a chalkboard will be the five entrees of the day – ramen, a rice bowl, yakisoba noodles, a fried chicken sandwich and Korean fried chicken – “KFC” – wings.
“The key to good Korean fried chicken is you’ve got to have really good crispy crust that’s durable,” Mike says. It’s very labor intensive – you coat one piece at a time, fry it for five minutes, let it rest for five minutes, and then fry it again for six minutes.
But the item he’s most proud of? His chicken sandwich.
“I eat it almost on a daily basis,” Mike says. “It’s very unassuming – fried chicken, garlic aioli and pickles – but the chicken is marinated in pickled daikon juice and fried with a wet batter that’s a combination of tempura batter and buttermilk. It’s simple and so good.”
In keeping with the casual theme, Mike recommends pairing your dish with one of the canned beers available – some local, others from Japan, like Orion.
“Enjoy your beer, and have wings as a snack,” he says.
What’s next for the enterprising chef is a Japanese and Korean tableside barbecue restaurant with a focus on pork and beef. (Imagine the bar at M Sushi but with a fire pit along it and adjustable grills). “It’s going to be one-of-a-kind,” Mike said.
To that, he plans to attach to a taco restaurant in similar fashion to the M Sushi and M Kokko setup – expect traditional tacos with an essence of Korean flavors.
And finally, a vegan restaurant. “I’m scared to death about that, because I am least comfortable in [that cuisine],” Mike says. “But I want to tackle it.”
And we want to taste it. But, for now, there’s fried chicken on the table.
Tips for diners
With only 20 seats, the restaurant can get crowded quickly during peak hours. Shoot for a time before or after the lunch and dinner rush, or grab takeout and skip the line!
Chef Mike Lee strives for the proper balance of flavors in all his dishes, so before you add soy sauce or the spicy sauce that comes with some of the dishes, give it a taste sans condiment. “Appreciate the flavor,” he says. Entrees are priced at around $9 to $13.
Editors’ Note: This story originally appeared in Durham Magazine.
Join Chef Mike Lee and dozens of other talented area chefs for TASTE 2017, an annual 4-day celebration of food and drink in Durham. More information and tickets are available online.
WRAL Out and About is a sponsor of TASTE 2017.