review by Scott Carle
Kurama; How many times have we uttered this / met there / threw down quick or celebrated long? This place is a gem and still somewhat of a small, best-kept secret. Known for sure by foodies, local chefs and most certainly by the Japanese community…this hibachi joint on 15-501 business in Durham on the service road across from Target is a favorite of mine and many others. It has been there a long time…in the 90’s it was called Kyoto as I remember….where the UNC and Duke basketball teams, Debbie K, members of Dillon Fence, the Veldt, Queen Sarah Saturday and many locals sat around the big flat hibachi grills and ate. Now it is Kurama and the grills are still there. The crowds are big and UNC students still come over in vans and have sake bomb parties in the big back rooms. On way to the grills, right in the front middle, is the sushi bar where it all happens. Reality and Tokyo and cuisine have a head-on-collision in the most pleasant way here at a cozy and authentic bar with all the fresh fish on display. 2 sushi clocks on the walls, lanterns above and a specials board to the right. The bar seats around 11 people and tables sit 6 to 8. That’s it. So starting at the top….with the best…IS the sushi chef there…Tomo. Anyone who knows this place and knows him…knows he is the real deal. Tomo Toguchi…from Tokyo JPN…delivers the goods EVERY time and with a smile and professionalism and TLC. Japanese style. If you want to cut up with him, no problem. If you want to include him in the party, no prob. If you want some quiet or privacy, the same goes. His co-worker / former sushi chef there ( Masaki ) has sadly for us, returned to Japan. Honorable mention is due here and to the other chefs who have worked there. Tomo’s name should be known as well as any of the other local big-name chefs in the Triangle..seriously. Having traveled many times to Japan I can assure anyone that the food over there is in another realm. High quality, high effort, high hospitality. Healthy and super flavored.
Even the fast-food in JPN is great….hit up MOS burger or a 7-Eleven if you go..excellent…hard to believe but so so true. So Japan has landed in the Bullcity as much as it can over at Kurama at the sushi bar. ( You CAN order and eat anything from the bar over at the hibachi grills ). The staff is wonderful there. As you enter.. to the left is authentic decor and dolls etc. The girls who are hostesses there are very nice and welcoming. For quite some time they had probably the coolest hostess ever, Jasmin Benitez. She, along with Rodney (the manager) and Tomo and the owners, Wendy and her husband( who are usually there ) and the entire staff.. were /are part of the charm of the place. Rodney and I worked together at Northgate Mall long ago when we were students…he rocks the place and makes a good stiff cocktail over at the main bar for those waiting on a table. The waiting area is a throwback to the ’70s or is it 80’s ?! It’s wild. The food is good all around but I go for the seat at the bar in front of Tomo. Back to him. Where to start? Appetizers….Gyoza ( dumplings w/ Japanese sauce )–on point. Edamame! Agedashi tofu! Shumai! Tempura! Saba Shioyaki ( baked mackerel)! Fried calamari legs ( a must ! ). And many folks’ fav — hamachi kama (grilled/boiled yellowtail ) !! Great options to start. And many times it comes out super quick. Kurama is one of those places where you can dine alone and be ok with that. I used to see the original chefs ( John and Chris ) from Rue Cler / Pops there a lot ( Rue Cler being the first to take the plunge and open a place downtown when there was nowhere to eat down there ). I see the owner of Mateo and Thai Cafe folks and foreign students and Japanese businessmen at Kurama often….these folks know where to go.
So now to the main courses. Sushi. Sashimi. It’s all good. We always ask Tomo : ” what’s good today”? And he always says ” everything ” ! And it’s true. You can’t go wrong. All the fish is fresh and delicious. And simple, just like Nippon. There are a few special rolls that are not authentic that are politely and silently frowned upon…to each his own. But a rainbow roll is better for me than an American Dream Roll for example. Tomo and company will cut up an avocado roll or a spicy scallop roll or a yellowtail roll in no time. Oiishi ! The nigiri ( fish slices on rice ) are always excellent. Tuna, salmon, eel, yellowtail…mmmmm. And one of my favs is fresh flounder nigiri…no soy needed just a little salt and lemon added by Chef T. Fresh ginger and wasabi are needed and if you like , they also have wasabi root…oh yes. A good finish to your meal is the tamago(egg omelet). The quality at K is excellent. To enjoy the fish it only requires a small amount of soy sauce ( or NONE ) applied to the fish and NOT the rice. No need to drench. Another mistake is to mix your wasabi into your soy sauce (frowned upon)… No need…put it on the fish or eat after. There’s a reason the Japanese have do’s and don’ts with food…because much thought and effort goes into it all and you want to get true flavor, etc. Same goes with other cultures / cuisines. FYI, a must see movie is “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”–fun, insightful and motivational.
And there is MORE. Soba ! ( cold soba…buckwheat noodles ) SO good ! Chirashi…a bowl of rice with pieces of everything ..clam, fish, eel , octopus, squid , etc. This is the one to get when you wanna go all out. A winner every time. They offer Gyudon ( a beef bowl )….an excellent Ramen bowl…Katsu Don ( fried chicken bowl )….wonderful Tempura….and good Udon noodle bowls.
On the specials board is the award winning ” spicy tuna sashimi ” . Just get it. And omg, the spicy scallop salad ! Fantastic.
Also Kawaebi ( fried whole little shrimps ) w/ lemon and beer ….a treat. Also offered is takoyaki….battered octopus w/ sauce….slightly sweet and a great dish to share. Red bean or green tea ice cream is always there if you need it. We / I also love sake and beer….they offer Kirin, Sapporo and Asahi…..wine too. My friend Mike Upchurch is a regular there and they make some things to order for him, like lobster or a filet mignon ( Japanese style ) or soft shell crab. And I love going w/ Scott Wells …he knows how to order the best combos…another regular customer he is. We all have brought many many people and newcomers to Kurama. Quite a few Duke students / co workers have joined and been surprised and happy to know about K and it’s close location to campus. I’m not going to slam certain sushi places near campus …..and I must say I’m a big fan of Basan and M sushi and the chefs there. I feel many people know of these restaurants for obvious reasons. Yet I want more people to know about Kurama and what it offers. A real Japanese style experience / meal / snack / drink. This place always delivers. Stop by sometime soon and when you enter the door you may feel like you are in the Shibuya district or in Nagano. Lost in translation. Tomo always says everythings good today….I always say the same thing when I leave : Domo arigatogozaimashita” AND ” see you tomorrow ” !