Sushi in the Triangle has come a long way during the past decade. Gone are the days when our only exposure to Japanese cuisine was through flavorless California rolls and fake crab-meat hibachi. As more and more Triangle restaurants specialize in ever-fresher and inventive Japanese cooking, expectations in quality have risen tremendously. And through endless exposure to food and travel documentaries and reality shows, customers at least have an idea of long-standing traditions in their cuisines of choice. They seek ever-deeper, ever-tastier cultural experiences. It’s a rewarding rabbit hole. Or so I thought.
For Triangle Restaurant Week, I decided to try Mura in Raleigh’s North Hills shopping center. I know: Why would anyone expect great Japanese food from a place at the mall? But I’d heard from various friends that Mura was always busy. I wondered, though, does it mainly appeal to the non-discriminating diner who also views The Cheesecake Factory as the pinnacle of filling the gullet? Is the restaurant’s popularity less about quality and more about convenience after a long day of Target?
I decided to find out.
I arrived at noon on the last day of Triangle Restaurant Week, a Sunday. The waiter presented me with menus from both lunch and dinner, each covered with pen marks that slashed through half of the items. “We’ve had so many guests ordering from the Restaurant Week menu that we’ve run out of almost everything, so we’re offering what’s left from either menu,” he explained.
He told me the menus mostly consisted of new items not featured on the regular menu. Although they had stocked up on ingredients and prepped based on last year’s numbers, Mura had doubled its numbers. My server said he alone had done $1,600 in sales just at one lunch. I was impressed, and he was proud. So affable was this waiter I was inclined to enjoy my meal before the food even arrived. Ah, but how likable staff can sometimes be a feint—for, as it turns out, Harris Teeter-level Japanese cuisine.
For the first course, I would have been able to choose from coconut miso ramen with Heritage Farms pork belly, chives and shiitake; kale salad with Asian pear, avocado, sunomono cucumber ribbons, roasted red pepper and house dressing; or ahi tuna salad with avocado, cucumber, chili sauce and romaine. Since the kale salad offering was off the table, I opted for the coconut miso ramen. In theory, a salty coconut broth enriched with pork fat could be a wonder. Bu this tasted less like an indulgence in an ancient tradition and more like I’d been served some slapdash concoction with no thought toward flavor development.
Still, the waiter told me the soup had proven so popular that week the chef was considering putting it on the menu. With some tweaks, sure. As it stands, that doesn’t say much about the menu—or my Target question.
For the second course, the menu had started with a half-dozen local oysters Rockefeller, pork belly, shiso, parmesan, yuzu and black salt; “maguro onigari” three ways (basically, tuna nigiri with Japanese rice seasoned with furikake) with tuna salad, spicy tuna cucumber and tuna avocado; karaage of fried lotus root, local sweet potato, shitake, grilled rice, chives and house made katsu sauce; and karaage of crispy fried chicken, pickeled celery, butter lettuce, gochujang butter and grilled scallion ranch.
But the kitchen was out of both the karaage and the New Orleans-meets-Tokyo mollusks, so I went for the maguro nigiri. Three triangles of sticky rice came wrapped in a band of crisp seaweed and sprinkled with furikake, a salty Japanese condiment of nori, black sesame seeds and fish flakes. Within the first triangle was what tasted like Chicken of the Sea canned tuna. The tuna was so overwhelmed by the rice and spice that, if the tuna was indeed fresh, there would be no way to tell.
For the third course, there were, at one time, two choices: chocolate lava cake with vanilla ice cream and a yuzu cheesecake with candied pistachios and strawberry coulis. Curious to see how the kitchen used the Japanese citrus fruit flavor, I ordered the cheesecake. But what I received looked and tasted like a doctored-up square of Jell-O No-Bake Key Lime Cheesecake mix. The graham cracker crust was so thick that the thin spread of creaminess barely registered. But I always enjoyed the sheetcake cheesecake mixes when I was a kid at church homecomings, so nostalgia got the better of me. I ate the whole square.
Overall, my experience at Mura—part of the Raleigh-based Eschelon Experiences, which also includes my old friends at Faire—was no better than if I’d gone to a mall food-court. Turns out, uninspired cuisine served up in a beautiful, modern dining room with Japanese flourishes is still uninspired cuisine. It was a disappointing if telling end to my Triangle Restaurant Week—too bad, altogether.