Return to Sushi Republic after year of exile

by Amy Kingsley

I started and, for all intents and purposes ended, my short career as a server at a small Japanese restaurant on Tate Street called Sushi 101.

From late spring until early fall of 2005, while I was putting the finishing touches on my master’s thesis, I ferried plates of artfully-arranged raw fish to the well-heeled tenants of the College Hill neighborhood. It was an easy gig as far as those things go, but I was terrible at it.

Disclosure: One night I dumped a tray packed with glasses of wine onto the tile floor in front of the hostess station and then broke out in stress hives. It was the nadir of my serving experience.

Since I left the restaurant – not on the best of terms with my former employers – I haven’t been back. But the recent hot weather has been reviving my cravings for sushi. And not just any sushi, but really good sushi. Like the kind they make at Sushi 101.

So almost one year to the day after I left that restaurant I went back with my boyfriend to indulge in a seafood feast. Jin and Shawn greeted me warmly and our server Cara led us over to a cozy booth toward the back.

The proprietors have made a few changes to the restaurant since the last time I was there. The gray carpet, once stained with traces of spilled soy sauce, has been replaced by shiny hardwood. And the name changed from Sushi 101 to Sushi Republic.

Jin told me that another restaurant in Charlotte already had the name Sushi 101 and people kept asking whether they were part of a franchise. We arrived the first day after they had installed a new awning with the name change.

But the new name is the biggest change since I departed. Most of the menu items were the same, with a few new additions. And the prices have remained the same, to the best of my recollection, despite the jump in gas prices.

We started our dinner with the Ika Sansai (a marinated squid salad), a serving of edamame and a chilled bottle of unfiltered sake. Unlike its clear brethren, unfiltered sake is cloudy and slightly sweet with a hint of melon flavor. You shake it before it’s served.

It is a little bit more expensive than hot sake, which is the more popular beverage. But it is also higher quality; heat masks the flavor of mediocre rice wine.

Squid salad is a little smoky and a bit spicy. Jin once told me that the squid meat is cooked in an acidic marinade, like ceviche. The tendrils of firm squid meat are served over a bed of shredded radish.

Edamame is just the Japanese term for soybeans steamed in their pods and lightly salted. You suck them out of the pod and then deposit the shells on an extra plate.

For our main course we ordered three rolls: the crouching tiger, the sunset and the shitake maki. The crouching tiger is stuffed with tuna and cucumber, topped with albacore, scallions, crunchies and ponzu sauce.

The sunset is one of a number of variations of the California roll. In this version the roll, which includes crab, avocado and cucumber, is topped with barbecued eel and sliced avocado. Eel sauce, a thick barbecue sauce-like condiment, pools on the plate.

Maki are less extravagant than the specialty rolls, and our shitake roll is just mushroom wrapped in rice and nori (seaweed). The shitakes have an earthy flavor and a texture that is almost meaty.

All of the rolls are delicious, and I was kicking myself for avoiding the place for so long. We arrived early, but by 7 p.m. the restaurant started to fill up. By then Mark and I were winding down our meal, sipping the last of the sake when Cara asked about dessert.

Even though we had gorged ourselves on sushi my boyfriend couldn’t resist the tempura strawberry bomb, a confection of strawberry ice cream wrapped in pound cake then tempura fried. It’s a bit like the Japanese version of fried ice cream. The final installment of the heretofore-light meal undid any of the health benefits from the fish and soybeans.

We left full, with the sun starting to set over the UNCG campus. I don’t know if I’ll be back before the end of the summer. But I will probably be back before the end of the year.

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