East meets Durham: What to order at Durham's three newest Asian restaurants
Posted April 9, 2015
Durham, N.C. — The openings of three Asian restaurants – Basan, Dashi and Juju – have provided an auspicious jumpstart to the new year. The eateries showcase how diverse Eastern foodways can be: Basan spotlights sushi and sashimi, often featuring fish from Carolina waters. Dashi specializes in springy ramen noodles in umami-rich broth, as well as Japanese pub food in its upstairs izakaya. And Juju proudly serves fusion fare that combines irresistible East-meets-West flavors.
The basan is a legendary bird that blasts fire from its mouth, but Basan at American Tobacco is no haven for chili heads. Chef Toshio Sakamaki is unafraid of spice, but his style lets the clean flavors of starring ingredients shine. Start with Hamachi Carpaccio, a crudo of yuzu-infused fluke, and the meltingly tender Hamachi Tiradito of yellowtail, simply dressed with warm chili ponzu sauce and slivers of avocado. His bright tropical salmon roll with mango and masago caviar is a study in contrasts to the briny Yokosuna roll, a big bite of eel, crab salad and tuna drizzled with spicy sesame sauce. Craving something meaty? Splurge on lusciously fatty skewers of pork belly. Fresh pickled ginger serves as a bracing palate cleanser between courses. For a light dessert, try the delicately flavored green tea creme brulee.
To see Toshio at work, make a beeline for the 11-seat sushi bar. Basan doesn't take reservations for small groups, so other options include a comfortable table or booth, or perhaps the glass-walled cocktail bar. Be sure to sample the sake menu; drinks are over-poured into traditional catch boxes that provide a bonus sip. Basan’s total 6,600-square feet were not quite complete when it opened in January, but now the space includes an elegant lounge and event space. Standard tables and chairs on an upper level to the right of the entrance are sometimes removed to create a kotatsu-style area, where diners sit on the floor and tuck their feet into a nook under a low table.
Remember the stern master in Jiro Dreams of Sushi? Toshio is serious about his craft but can't restrain his joy at opening a modern Japanese restaurant in a town brimming with bold eaters. "People here are educated. They know good food," he says. "I can be more creative here." His training started in Tokyo, where his father owned a small sushi shop. By 18, he was working at Hatsuhana, a four-star restaurant in New York City. After 20 years in San Francisco and LA, including a foray in Japanese-French fusion, he was recruited by the Raleigh-based Eschelon Experiences to open its first Durham eatery. Before Basan, he worked at Eschelon's Mura in Raleigh's North Hills, where he helped to update its menu.
Here's a Tip
Ask your server if Toshio has anything interesting in the kitchen that's not on the menu. He likes to create items inspired by local ingredients, especially Carolina seafood. If you want the chef driving your dinner, opt for the multicourse Omakase, a prix-fixe experience in which he creates a tasting menu from best available ingredients. Or take the wheel yourself with Ishiyaki Beef, using a tabletop grill for a fun DIY experience.
Trust the knowledgeable servers to guide you through unfamiliar territory. Upstairs in the izakaya, options range from range from a seasonal pickle plate and tender miso eggplant to skewers of chicken heart and pork tongue. Thirsty? The appealingly bitter Studasaurus starts with a Rye IPA made for Dashi by Ponysaurus. On the other end of the spectrum is the Hosoi, a skinny shochu cocktail blended with plum liqueur and yuzu. Ramen reigns downstairs. The traditional Tonkotsu, with its milky pork broth and roasted pork belly, may be the starring attraction, but the rich umami flavors of the mushroom- and mustard greens-based vegetarian, and the lighter miso, with ground pork, pickled cabbage and sweet potatoes, are not to be missed. With flavors like green tea-jasmine and yuzu-clementine, you'll want to save room for a sampler of signature ice creams made by Parlour.
The biggest delay in getting the long-awaited Dashi open was the craftsmanship involved in installing the handsome black American walnut that gives the downtown space its distinctive minimalist character. The door on the left, marked RAMEN, leads to the noodle bar. Black-and-white panels cut from classic Japanese comic books were hand-applied on the diagonal to create a playfully unique wall art. The tabletops were made from salvaged bowling alley lanes. The door on the right, marked BAR, leads upstairs to the izakaya. Original touches here include sake cups, bowls and plates made by partner Rochelle Johnson, who also is a potter.
Dashi brings together the talents of Billy and Kelli Cotter of Toast and Rochelle Johnson and Nick Hawthorne-Johnson of The Cookery, an event space and commercial kitchen. The couples tested the waters with a successful pop-up event two years ago. Later, while Kelli stayed behind, they went on an eating tour in Tokyo, seeking out the best ramen shops to inspire their dream restaurant. They spent so much time at one place that the owners sent them home with a "lucky cat," a white figurine that sits on a shelf in the izakaya. Scott Ritchie, formerly of Chapel Hill Street neighbors Alley Twenty Six and Rue Cler, manages the innovative bar program. Craig Heffley of Wine Authorities curates the sake and wine lists.
Here's a Tip
Get a seat at the noodle bar to catch the choreography of dishes being assembled by three line cooks – which sometimes includes Billy. "It's dinner and a show," quips Kelli. Upstairs, try the curried beef tendon crackers. While tendon is typically discarded in American kitchens, Billy boils the trimmings for hours until tender, slices them wafer thin, then dries them in a dehydrator. Just before serving, the bits are flash fried into chicharrones and tossed with a dusting of house-blend curry.
With its name being a diminutive of parent restaurant Jujube, Ninth Street’s Juju focuses on Asian tapas and shareable plates. Co-owner Charlie Deal describes Chef Aaron Zarczynski's menu as "unapologetically fusion," though the Ha Gow dumplings (with scratch-made wheat starch wrappers) are the real deal. The paper menu doubles as a placemat, which, of course, tempts diners to try additional dishes. The steamed and fried dumplings are a fun way to begin – the duck and chive version is a must-order. And be sure to try the ahi poke, a glistening blend of raw tuna dressed with macadamia-soy jus arranged atop a crispy fried wonton. The tender lemongrass grilled hanger steak, served with addictive pickles, is so savory as to make the dipping sauce superfluous. Service hours expanded in March with quick-service lunch options and weekend brunch featuring assorted dim sum and Asian-tweaked classics, like five-spice French toast.
Juju's inviting focal point is its large and sleek island bar. It's a great place to enjoy a flight of premium sake; take your pick among 28 options or trust bar manager Brett Lyszak to curate your tour. Brett has crafted several Asian-inspired cocktails, like the foamy That Thing Yuzu (bourbon, house-made ginger-yuzu syrup and egg white). Once home to George's Garage, the reconfigured space has multi-toned wood walls, cozy booths and ample raised-table seating. The spacious outdoor patio, which wraps around the building, is an irresistible draw on mild nights – and features fire pits for chilly ones.
Charlie, who also operates Dos Perros, was pursuing a degree in genetic engineering at UC-Berkeley some 20 years ago when he was seduced by the restaurant trade. The Bay Area native was first inspired to open an Asian tapas place when working at a noodle bar in Sun Valley, Idaho, which led to a trip to China that coincided with Chairman Mao's centennial. He and Juju business partner Julian Benfey, along with Julian’s parents, opened Jujube in 2005. Juju attracts a lively crowd, including college students, regulars who walk over from nearby apartments and familiar faces from Durham's top kitchens.
Here's a Tip
Love the deep-fried Brussels sprouts served with crispy chicken at Chapel Hill’s Jujube, but not up for the whole dish? The sprouts are one of several items familiar to Jujube diners that can be ordered as stand-alone snacks at Juju.
Editor’s Note: Basan and Juju are participating in the Grand Taste Experience on April 23 at 6:30 p.m. at the Durham Armory, part of Taste 2015, a four-day food festival in Durham. Tickets are on sale now at tastetheevent.com. Spend the evening savoring dishes created by 20 of the best chefs in the region, and meet local beverage makers producing your favorite beer, soda, coffees and spirits. A portion of proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Durham Branch of the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina.