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On a Roll

Sushi-Ya champions Japanese small bites in the Arboretum

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Sushi eateries have that annoying habit of bill creep. Sure, you look at the menu with the rolls typically under 10 bucks, so you and your dining companion order a few to share. Then you add an order of shumai, two bowls of miso and a couple of Japanese beers. Suddenly the bill stands above 50 bucks and all you had were 15 bites of food.

If you compare Japanese-style restaurants to all-you-can-eat buffets, the former will always lose to the latter on the cost to fill up. But, the remarkable aspect of Japanese cuisine is appetite satisfaction. After the miso, a starter or two, some sushi, and perhaps a nigiri roll or two, you are no longer hungry. You may not be stuffed, but you are no longer hungry.

I suspect this is part of the historic design of sushi, which once was a wharf front street snack loaded with protein and carbs, and low in fat. During the past decade or so in mainstream America, sushi has morphed into its Americanized version, often with fat (that's the mayonnaise), and with as many rolls offered with cooked or fried ingredients as raw.

But even with the fat, Japanese cuisine, albeit Americanized, seems the perfect fit for long sultry summer nights when feeling stuffed is about as appealing as waiting in the self-check line at US Airways at Charlotte Douglas.

Last January, restaurateurs Sharon and Daniel Lee, a couple from Canada of Korean descent, took over a Japanese restaurant in the Arboretum and opened Sushi-Ya Japan. This is the Lees' sixth restaurant, but the first in Charlotte. Their last five restaurants were in Toronto. At Sushi-Ya, they extensively renovated the interior, relocating the hibachi grill from the dining room to the kitchen and expanding the sushi bar into the dining room.

Sushi-Ya has been freshened with mellow paint and charming Japanese artifacts. The best is the neon sushi sign which transforms a geisha head to a plate of sushi. Yet not all is totally idyllic: uncomfortable wooden banquettes may leave you wanting an epidural. Fortunately, cushioned chairs are located at other tables. The interior ambiance is refreshing enough, though a disconcerting stream of pedestrians pass the storefront windows.

Owner Daniel Lee is also head Itamae, sushi chef. The menu here is long and punctuated by the usual Japanese suspects: hibachi, teriyaki, noodles and sushi. The kitchen is known for offering extras to the tables, in one case bowls of soup, in another edamame. Skip the short wine list and opt for imported beer or saki, both hot and cold. The appetizer menu includes a range of Japanese favorites from chicken skewers to gyoza, a Japanese dumpling. The crispy shrimp tempura appetizer was accompanied with delicate vegetables. Even better was the wickedly gossamer shumai.

The sushi was of good quality, particularly anything with eel. Gigantic maki rolls of fried soft shell crab embellished by roe and a grouping of descending layers of eel and avocado rolls resonate with refreshing taste. Pillows of sashimi appeared with generously long, thin slices of salmon, yellowfin tuna and other fish, which embraced cushions of warm vinegared rice with only a murmur of wasabi separating them. What I missed, though, was more of the knock-your-socks-off styling, although some of the long rolls, like the dragon roll, were cute. But the clean taste in both the sushi and sashimi is what will bring people back. Dessert, however, is an after thought, although green tea ice cream presents a spirited end.

Prices range from $5 at lunch to the $150 "Big Boat" which is sushi for six and is a popular take-out item. Like most sushi spots, as you keep adding on -- $2 for a roll here, $3 for one there -- the bill climbs. Yet one of Sushi-Ya's chief appeals is the price break of the bento box, which is $9.95 at lunch (add $2 for a sushi roll) and only $20 at dinner and includes tempura, grilled steak, rice, sushi, miso and dessert.

Sushi-Ya occupies a small space among the storefront shops of the Arboretum. Like everywhere else in this shopping center, the crowd is casual and parking is harder to find at lunch and dinner hours. The menu is designed for the neighborhood, so the prices are competitive while the offerings are less exotic than you might find at a pricey Japanese restaurant. But that fits: you get what you pay for. Without being luxurious, Sushi-Ya presents good-quality sushi at reasonable prices.

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