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Iron Chef

Traditional Japanese restaurant offers much more than just sushi


For a chef, preparing dinner at the James Beard House in New York is akin to a musician playing Carnegie Hall. Each week, both established and emerging chefs who are members of the James Beard Foundation have a chance to showcase their talents. Local Chef Yoshiyuki "Yoshi" Takusagawa had such an opportunity this past June.

That evening's menu featured an Ocean Pyramid of Bluefin Tuna Tartare layered with Avocado Cucumber, Eel and Rice with cold Zaru Soba Salad; Crawfish-Miso Bisque with Japanese River Crab; Asian River Shrimp-filled carved Cucumbers with seared scallops, lump crabmeat, baby romaine, and plum ginger vinaigrette; Sake-soy- ginger marinated and roasted Veal Tenderloin with rice noodles and shimeji mushrooms; and Kuriyokan Red Bean Jelly with Chestnuts and fig wine. Wow. Seems a bit more impressive than, say, a sushi roll laden with raw fish, rice, and mayo.

Chef Yoshi is co-owner of Sekisui, a new traditional Japanese restaurant in Huntersville. The other owner is Memphis restaurateur Jimmy Ishii who, after years with Benihana, opened the first Sekisui Pacific Rim in Memphis in 1989 and is credited with bringing sushi to that town. Ishii owns and has invested in several restaurant ventures.

Chef Yoshi trained in Japanese traditional culinary arts for 10 years in his native Tokyo and has worked in restaurants in Tokyo, Osaka, Chicago, and Memphis. After a stint in the US, he returned home to be a sous chef in a Tokyo restaurant. While there he met Ishii through a mutual friend. They co-partnered and Yoshi arrived in Huntersville in April to open Sekisui.

Sekisui is located in a non-descript red brick shopping center off Exit 23 (space formerly occupied by Asahi Japanese Restaurant). Immediately to the right of the door is a glistening wall of flowing water, glass and steel. The 100-seat restaurant, though calmed by the choice of the lilac wall color, is dynamic. The center dining section is defined by green-stained lattice woodwork. To the sides are more secluded nooks and towards the rear, a large private room. The sushi bar, fronted by a half dozen bar stools, has small colorful fish halogen lights dangling from lines overhead.

Asian cuisine is well-worn territory for local food lovers. Thai and Vietnamese, which first showed up near the military bases in the eastern part of the state in the early 70s, have made strong showings here for the past two decades. Traditional Japanese cuisine was slower to catch on. First we had theatrical Japanese, then traditional Japanese restaurants, and with America's renewed interest in eating healthy foods we have everyday sushi in the grocery stores. Trendy Japanese restaurants have forsaken the soft strains of classical Shakuhachi, the delicate bamboo flute, and now their sushi chefs produce their tame creations to wildly popular music.

But none of these is a category into which Chef Yoshi falls. His skillfully prepared dishes transcend these simplistic labels.

Fish is important to this restaurant and Chef Yoshi receives his shipments of pristine fish from suppliers in Maine and California. His menu runs the full gamut of traditional Japanese cuisine, but it is the execution of these items that sets Sekisui apart. Chef Yoshi creates densely flavored shumai dumplings that seem almost weightless, and melt-in-your-mouth grilled shiitake mushrooms. The pale delicacy of tempura shrimp is lush among the tangle of udon noodles. On another plate are rows of thinly sliced sparkling fish resting on poufs of short grain. Wheels of crunchy vegetables, strands of daikon radish, and spicy crawfish prove irresistible. The food is stunning.

Meanwhile, the wine list has 23 well-selected bottles, a selection of premium sake, and an assortment of domestic and imported beer. Something for everyone.

The only problem at Sekisui is bemoaning your plight that you must choose among the items on the menu. The best deal is the "all you can eat" sushi from 5pm until 7pm for $16.95. However, forget "omakase" (bring me what you want) which may result in "same old" sushi. Specify the items you want from the menu and be dazzled with glittery ahi shrimp. Also be forewarned to wait since made to order sushi is labor intensive and the 5pm until 7pm time slot at Sekisui is popular.

The purist Japanese restaurants are typically neighborhood joints where the owner chef is at hand to make a statement. For those in North Meck, you're lucky Chef Yoshi chose your neighborhood. For food lovers who don't live near the exit, Sekisui is a worthy destination.

Sekisui, 14211 Reese Road, Huntersville. Hours are 11:30am until 2pm Monday through Friday; 5pm until 9:30pm Monday through Thursday and until 10:30pm Friday and Saturday. AmEx, Visa, MC, Dis. 704-992-1234.

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