Venue Review: One-U
The Charlotte Observer
Bridging the gap between aficionados and newcomers is always tricky in the restaurant business, but rarely is it trickier than with Japanese food - not to mention Japanese food at a place tucked into a suburban strip mall. On Weddington Road.
But One-U creates a walkway that gives sushi fans simple nigiri and elegantly crafted rolls that focus on the flavor of the fish, while also offering some maki with cooked "sushi" that eases diners into the genre - with some dignity. There's teriyaki and hibachi and udon entrees, tonkatsu and tempura, boxes and combo meals.
Credit Tony Tan and his wife, Michelle Leong, with this lengthy list, smartly constructed to offer range while making the most of ingredients at hand. Tan, who says he logged more than a decade in New York City doing Asian fusion and sushi, came to Charlotte about two years ago. He worked at Nikko and Sushi 101 before becoming a partner in this, named for a shopping mall in his and Leong's native Malaysia. One-U "means the main one, the place you can get everything," he says.
And though the menu is wide-ranging now, and he's trying to discern what his diners want, he'd like to do more. He now posts a few daily specials - a tender and juicy Thai-style mango chicken, for instance - and describes other off-menu offerings, such as abalone with asparagus and mushroom in black pepper sauce, to regulars. When he finds suitable kitchen help, he says, he'll do more. He welcomes questions: "Everyone starts from the beginning - and if they learn, I will get better business!"
Particularly pleasant, besides well-cut salmon, eel and yellowtail nigiri (just the fish atop a pad of rice with a bit of wasabi), was the Saigon spicy tuna wrap. I don't usually go in much for maki (rolls), preferring nigiri and sashimi, but this makes the most of a fusion approach: rice paper rather than nori as a wrapper, mixed greens rather than rice inside, around a nice slab of tuna with a bit of spicy sauce, not the hash of tuna often used in "spicy tuna rolls." Lovely.
Ingredients are the crux of sushi sustainability, and therefore its most difficult challenge: You can't stock great fresh toro unless people buy it, and it's not the sort of thing chefs want to waste while they build a following for it. (Toro is tuna belly, prized for its butteriness - and more ardent fans know even within the toro specification, there are more specific cuts, such as chutoro and otoro.) So my few disappointments here were ingredient-based but understandable: No toro one night; there, but in the freezer on another; no uni (sea urchin).
Octopus, on the other hand, proved tender and lovely - a welcome surprise. And hibachi and teriyaki dishes are done with panache and simple sauces (even the soy sauce is housemade, says Tan), while tempura arrives at the table still steaming, with a faintly floral dipping sauce. Details shine: Green tea was toothsome and served really, really hot - a rare and wonderful thing - and garnishes are handsome without being fussy.
The wood sushi bar forms an L at the restaurant's front, while the dining room is a little dark, with a large-tiled floor and good spacing between tables. Servers are interested though not particularly quick, and on my visits, business has been slow.
That deserves to change.