8320-607 Pineville Matthews Road. 704-543-4081. Hours: Monday to Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner hours, Monday to Thursday 4:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., until 10 p.m. on Friday; Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Café side with bubble tea and Japanese desserts opening this fall.
In the restaurant business, location is not everything, but it is pretty close. Even mediocre places in the right spot seem to do better than brilliant places in remote spots. To attract customers to the back side of a shopping center, then, you have to be lucky — or good — or both.
The purist sushi restaurants have traditionally been tiny neighborhood joints in scale and location. Several months ago, the owners of Mizuho Sushi & Japanese Cuisine, located on the back side of a shopping center, closed up shop to return to Japan. Before Mizuho, the space had been another popular Japanese restaurant, Tsukiji. For almost 20 years, that space has been devoted to Japanese cuisine. During that same span of time, sushi has gone from being a specialty to ubiquity, becoming as commonplace in Charlotte as fried pickles.
Grace Lee and her father Albert Lee have now opened the 75-seat Simplee Sushi, a play on their last name, in that spot. The Lees rewired the space for a modern feel, with free Wi-Fi, stained concrete floors, and a view through unencumbered windows of an expanse of green.
The name also reflects the offerings on the menu. Most of the rolls and nigiri are predictable, except perhaps the Baltimore Roll with crab and Old Bay.
Sushi has changed a lot, too, during the past 20 years. The training required to prepare nigiri-sushi, maki-sushi, and chirashi-sushi has been reduced from the life-consuming eight to 10 years to on-the-job training. But here Itamae Albert Lee is old-school. He apprenticed to a master chef and now has 25 years of experience. Subsequently, the fish is pristine. Lee uses the same fish vendor he used in his former restaurants in the D.C. area for the past two decades. But the selection is limited. Expensive toro, for example, is not on the menu and Grace Lee keeps a "uni" fan database so she can shoot out an e-mail when uni is in the house.
Among the appetizers, the delicate shumai and skewers of grilled shrimp were generally admired. Standard favorites like unagi brushed with a modest barbecue sauce with rice neither too soft nor too vinegary, and hamachi were quite good, while a spicy tuna roll was, in fact, spicy. A tottering spider maki was filled with the requisite crispy assemblage. The bento box of beef was balanced with a generous hit of vegetable tempura. In addition to sushi, there is tataki, grilled dishes, and quick items such as cucumber and octopus with miso sauce. For the quality, the prices are very reasonable — in fact, inexpensive.
You get the feeling here that if you sit at the sushi bar often enough, Albert Lee, an obvious aesthete, will dazzle you with an omakase tasting tour — if you let him. Meanwhile, Grace Lee works hard to make sure her customers have what they need before they even think about it. Simplee Sushi won't dazzle you, but it will charm you, which is, after all, what a neighborhood place is all about.