M Sushi
309 E. Chapel Hill St., Durham

In my experience, regaling visitors to Durham with stories of an incredible, incredibly small sushi joint tucked into an alley raises eyebrows. Try telling a longtime resident that you’ve found a place that serves fresh fish direct from Japan and Korea in a spot that once housed a bike shop, and the looks grow even more dubious.

That’s OK. Chef and owner Mike Lee had his own doubts about the basement he’s turned into Durham’s latest gastronomic gem.

“I walked in and was like, ‘Are you sure?’” Lee remembers thinking of the narrow, dark, windowless space with a low ceiling. “But my team and my wife, they could visualize a beautiful, rustic restaurant.”

M Sushi is inspired by these spatial limitations. Minimalist décormatte stone-gray walls, low-backed black chairs, dim lightskeep your mind Zen-clear, syncing it with your palate. The space is like a vault, a lower den of secrets stowing a menu of ingredients begging to be unearthed.

The unadorned sushi bar is a piece of African Bubinga wood, cut close to its natural shape. The conceptual and literal focus, it nearly occupies the entire length of the room.

“I can see everybody,” Lee says. “I’m in the middle of it all. It’s a big playground.”

With diners at the bar, Lee and his sous chefs glide their knives against glimmering fish, breaking down big-eye tuna from Hawaii into blood-red rubies and splintering salmon into bite-size pieces, to be slurped like melted butter.

M balances clean, raw flavors with elements cooked or seared to perfection. M takes near-daily deliveries of seafood from Japan, Korea, and Hawaii, including a Saturday morning drive to an RDU cargo pad for pickup. The same high-end seafood Lee serves raw is used for the menu’s few cooked dishes, a detail other restaurants skip in exchange for cheaper cuts. Raw wasabi is not an option but the standard. A chef cooks rice constantly throughout lunch and dinner service, two cups at a time. This small-batch method allows Lee to monitor the water temperature for sushi rice that always arrives in perfect, warm mounds.

“No shortcuts,” he stipulates.

With M, Lee also makes this area’s first earnest attempt at “Nikkei,” a blend of the citrus and seafood found in Peruvian and Japanese cuisine. It’s a highlight of the raw-centric menu. The backbone of this marriage is

tiradito, created by a Japanese chef who migrated to Peru decades ago. It incorporates thick slices of raw fish cured by the acidity of lime juice and the Peruvian pepper aji amarillo. Lee turns the concept into an inspired appetizer, where raw, slippery scallops drown in brilliant aji and a melon puree the color of egg yolk. Thin flakes of crispy prosciutto and a verdant sprinkle of microgreens are welcome afterthoughts.

The most stunning display of raw ingredients, though, is Lee’s take on chirashiessentially, a bowl of assorted fish and vegetables. A dollop of warm sticky rice, dabbed with fresh crabmeat and dusted with nori, supports sherbet-hued layers of fish. Strips of salmon, tuna, sea bream, and scallop pop individually. Tiny bits of pickled Japanese cucumber and eggplant, both with thick skin, balance the naturally sweet and saline flavors of the ocean.

By combining the briny, oceanic flavors of raw seafood with elements that don’t overshadow them, the M Futomaki, Twisted Mango, and Unagi Maki allowed me to appreciate sushi rolls again. The tempura lightly softens the shrimp without dominating it. Fresh green mango complements the fish with a subtle sourness. And crispy garlic flakes offer a savory, cooked essence for palates needing reassurance.

The nigiri and sushi options arrive two pieces at a time. Seared eel (anago) and steamed octopus (tako) may sound the most adventurous, but their mild undertones and firm textures make them perfect for sushi beginners. Sea bream (madai) and salmon (sake) offer gentle, buttery decadence.

Served raw, the shrimp (ebi) resemble a kitschy plastic toy tied to a landing pad of rice with a strip of seaweed, its tail hanging off. It is, however, the most pleasantly pungent raw flavor on the menu. The spotted prawn companion (ama ebi) is a sight to behold, served whole and tempura-fried, with gnarly antennae curving above eyes that resemble tiny black pearls.

The octopus appetizer, a treat from the grill, transplants you to a backyard beach party. Charcoal-seared tentacles become thick chunks of white meat, nestled in a bed of tiny beans and a smooth uni sauce. For maximum decadence, Lee even re-creates the dish that nearly gave Anthony Bourdain an orgasm at New York City’s Marea: uni toast. A long, thin baguette is topped with freshly chopped blue crab, a fat piece of uni (the briny sea urchin, lavish on its own), a thin strip of seared lardo (Italian fatback, y’all), and orange bubbles of roe.

M does not have a dessert menu, but my server recommended the tamago, or the “egg omelet” sushi, as the finale. Served in a tall block, it was as spongy as a pound cakealmost as sweet, too.

Lee’s family moved from Seoul, South Korea, to the U.S. when he was an adolescent. He remembers “cooking” with his brother while his parents were at work. When he was fourteen, he started flipping burgers at Sonic before settling into a local steakhouse’s salad station. In college, he trained forty hours a week as a hibachi and sushi chef while studying computer programming. With twelve credit hours to go, he quit to devote himself to restaurants. After years bouncing around the West Coast and the South and, most recently, taking the reins at Raleigh’s Sono, Lee says M is the place where he can live out his sushi dreams.

“We’re aiming toward such high goals, trying to exceed expectations day in and day out,” he says. “Let’s make people happy. I say that with sincerity.”

It’s a basement deal worth making.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Freshest Catch”