Ambiance: Soothing, well-decorated
Seeking some fresh flavors, I packed my Picky Companion into the car and headed south to the Brevard area. Our destination was Sora, a new Japanese restaurant in a somewhat unlikely location – a strip mall flanking a Wal-Mart.
If you can ignore the strip-mall environment, the exterior of the place bodes well. The sign is eye-catching and contemporary, a theme that continues on through the doors. The interior is done in mostly subdued hues, with sandy-colored wall coverings, a dark, highly polished wooden bar, and a blonde wood floor. Splashes of color come in the form of tasteful wall treatments, such as the colossal photograph of a mountain waterfall surrounded by trees that dominates the wall behind the sushi bar. The windows are cleverly frosted in the right spots so that the parking lot is partially concealed, but a view of the trees beyond is possible. With a down-tempo, jazzy soundtrack, the overall effect is a soothing one, even when the place fills up, as it did on the Monday evening we visited.
Sitting at the sushi bar is highly recommended, though it requires forgoing the more appealing, slightly elevated dining platform in the back of the restaurant, where you can eat your raw meat while keeping an eye on the rest of the diners. At the bar, the chefs are more than happy to chat with customers about which of the jewel-like slabs of flesh behind the glass are at their best this time of year, and where they come from. Their exuberance is contagious: We watched them build a plate of sushi that was so, well, picture-perfect that one of the chefs couldn’t resist pulling out a digital camera to snap a couple of photos.
Armed with a bottle of unfiltered sake and the chefs’ recommendations, we dove into the menu, which is mostly composed of familiar elements, but also features a few creative ventures. Marks were made on the paper sushi menu, appetizers were ordered, and the sake supply diminished as we toasted the chef, each other, whatever.
First out of the gate was the lovely filet tataki. The thinly sliced meat was just barely – but uniformly – seared, lightly peppered, with an impressive web of marbling. The beef was obviously of high quality, with a melt-in-your mouth texture nearly reminiscent of Kobe (the meat, not the basketball player). The dish – garnished with an orchid and a few bundles of crunchy micro-greens with a light radishy kick – was elegantly presented.
Another hit was the hamachi kama, a yellowtail cheek that was perfectly grilled and seasoned. This dish that not for those who are squeamish about bones, though bone-fright really ought to be overcome if one is going to eat meat, since bones provide plenty of flavor and moisture. Though it takes a bit of chopstick acrobatics to fish out some of the best, fattiest meaty bits, the effort is well worth it (and even the occasional sharp little bone in the mouth). And don’t worry, you won’t have a head delivered to your table. On the contrary, the appetizer was very aesthetically pleasing, and once again beautifully garnished.
To complete our meal, we opted for a full-on sushi experience, which turned out to be a good move. The fish was undeniably fresh, and the rolls were stuffed to the point of near rupture (as we were soon to be).
A spicy yellowtail and scallion roll arrived glowing and bulging with fish beside an equally massive dragon roll with eel lolling out of the end pieces. The yellowtail was missing its scallions and looked suspiciously like someone had accidentally replaced it with a spicy tuna roll, but we didn’t care. Whatever it was, it was good as hell (even though it contained the dreaded “crunchy” – some day, I’ll learn to ask Japanese restaurants to lay off the fried bits). The eel roll was excellent, as well, and fresh as everything else.
We ordered the special Spiderweb Roll for two reasons: The sushi chef described it in such loving detail that we couldn’t resist, and we wondered how impressive a sushi roll has to be to cost about $14. Turns out, pretty impressive – it was so massive and expertly sculpted that it was somewhat intimidating. The roll was filled with fried softshell crab, wasabi sauce and mango, crowned with avocado and veritable handfuls of spicy tuna, then finally arranged on the plate with a deep-fried claw jutting out of the middle and pointing to the sky. It was further garnished with red and green tobiko, eel and mango sauce, another orchid, and what appeared to be a banana leaf.
Though that may sound like something of a culinary train wreck, it was really quite excellent (though Picky thought that it wanted for a bit more spiciness). Quick consumption is necessary to keep the crab crisp, it bears mentioning.
On a tip from the person who recommended the restaurant to us, we tried the uni – sea urchin, for those that aren’t familiar – and did indeed find it very fresh and flavorful. Regrettably, I still haven’t gotten over an unfortunate encounter with an urchin of questionable age in a now-defunct local sushi joint, though that’s certainly no fault of Sora’s. I left more than half of the dish for the my companion, who dubbed it the “foie gras of the sea.”
Our bill amounted to about $60 dollars before the tip to both the waitress and the sushi chefs (I think you should always tip your sushi chef if you sit at the bar) – a good deal for the amount of food and drink we consumed. Those who find themselves in the vicinity of Sora – Brevardians? Pisgah Foresters? – should count themselves lucky. Good sushi has definitely come to your town.