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The raw and the cooked 

click to enlarge Chef Charles perfects the sushi roll. - ALEX MANESS

Charles Meteesatien has soft hands. He uses them all day, slicing fish, pressing fish to rice; the oils from the fish and the acids of the sushi vinegar work on his hands in turn, leaving them smooth: no calluses or rough spots. When he fillets a salmon, he keeps his fingers flat against its side as the knife passes through. He pulls the knife along slowly, pausing now and again to be sure the flesh does not tear or bruise. It is an oddly tender sight. When he has cut the skin away and tweezed out the fish's tiny ribs, he slices the fillet into blocks a hand's breadth across and with the uniform thickness of a deck of cards. The piece he sets before a customer is pink and clean and ends in fine angles: It is a very special kind of raw dead fish.

Last November, Meteesatien opened Raleigh's Sushi Blues Café with Quy Duong, a former co-worker of his at Kabuki steakhouse in Cary. Duong, who came to Hickory from Vietnam when he was 14, had always held vague ambitions of owning his own restaurant. "I'm not sure why," he said. "Maybe I like to eat." Duong and Meteesatien agreed that their restaurant would take cues from traditional sushi conventions, but bring in a few contemporary embellishments. On the house stereo, they have forgone piped-in samisen tunes for Al Green and Dinah Washington. The menu features dinner combos named for jazz and R&B luminaries ("Miles Davis Going Solo" is a sushi platter for one) as well as something called a "bagel roll" (salmon, cream cheese and scallions) alongside more conventional fare. The restaurant's interior, designed and built by Duong and Meteesatien, eschews rice paper and tatami mats for lots of blonde wood and teeny hanging lights. It evokes Japan in some very faint way, an impression handily contradicted by John Lee Hooker on the hi-fi and the old Blue Note albums tacked to every wall. It's a look that would probably require a lot of hyphens to describe: Teahouse-Redux-Slash-Attenuated-Danish-Retro-Cool.

The café is usually packed on weekend nights, but even so, convincing people raised on hamburgers and tacos to hazard the jump to raw fish can be something of a challenge. When he first tried sushi 10 years ago in Los Angeles, Duong admits that even he did not take to it immediately. "I didn't like it," he said. "I had to chase it down with a big bottle of Kirin. After a couple of times, I was crazy about it. But still the idea of having a piece of raw fish in your mouth, it's not a very comfortable idea to have." And it's an idea Duong and Meteesatien work hard to dispel. They're compulsive about their fish, constantly checking its color, its temperature, its smell (any remotely questionable meat is summarily chucked). It's a good idea, Meteesatien said, to sniff your sushi before you eat it. "That way, you can tell if it's fresh." We went behind the bar and smelled a few fillets. "It's all fresh," he said, holding up a salmon loin. With really fresh fish there's no detectable odor; it's more a cool suggestion of scent, like a cucumber. "Grab any fish." He pulled a hexagonal cut of yellowtail tuna from behind the glass. It smelled clean and faintly briny. "See? It's got a good smell." He smiled, gesturing with the roll of flesh. "It's easy to tell if your sushi's no good. It tastes funny. It's bad fish."

click to enlarge Charles Meteesatien and Quy Duong, chef-owners of Sushi Blues - ALEX MANESS
  • Alex Maness
  • Charles Meteesatien and Quy Duong, chef-owners of Sushi Blues

When the sushi arrives on the plate, it's a gorgeous study in fastidiousness. Meteesatien finds great satisfaction in it, in arranging the little foods just so. "You can taste a thing with the eye," he says, "with smell, all your senses together. Especially with raw fish. It has to look good." Everything on the platter is tiny and symmetrical. It looks like a collection of expensive paperweights, bits of porcelain and colored glass. The question isn't whether it's okay to eat, but whether you ought to take your meal home, have it shellacked and set it on the mantle. I spent an awkward moment at the sushi bar deciding how best to confront an intimidating tuna, red snapper and daikon radish salad that Duong assembled for me. He had sliced the fish in translucent wedges and arranged them in a pinkish sawblade around the edge of the plate. Radish threads were piled in a delicate nest in the center of the plate and topped with a rose of whittled tuna flesh. It looked like a fancy hat, and I was not at all sure how to eat the thing without causing it great insult. But then I just sort of ate it. I started at the top and stopped when all the food was gone. It was a hell of a salad. Lots of subtle little notes: citrus, sesame, delicate things you probably notice more in a quiet room.

I also ate a terrific roll of salmon skin and smelt roe. We in America are not great eaters of animal skins. We tend to save them for wallets, and more's the pity. The skin of the salmon fish, baked until crispy, has a very savory crunch to it. I did run into minor difficulties attacking the sashimi. Sushi is meant to be downed in a single bite, but sashimi (actual fish hunks as opposed to cross-sections of roll) requires at least two bites unless you can unhinge your jaw anaconda-style. I was working my way through a bit of eel when the strap of seaweed that tethered meat to rice gave way. The whole ensemble landed in my sauce dish and gave me a good speckling. I sat licking soy sauce from the backs of my hands and wondered for a minute if Americans aren't perhaps too graceless to truly appreciate this elegant food.

Later I asked Meteesatien, who learned his craft in Japan, if it was hard for to him to watch customers bearing down on his creations like a ton of bricks. "No," he said but added that Americans might enjoy sushi more if they stopped manhandling it with large wads of wasabi, the Japanese horseradish that, taken in concentration, delivers a fiery, sinus-clearing headrush. "Most Americans just stick it on the sushi. Maybe they like it like that, but that's not the way. You need to mix it with the soy sauce, otherwise it kills the taste of the fish. You can't get anything out of it."

Meteesatien takes pains to make good sushi, but he isn't sanctimonious about what people do with it once he hands the plate across the bar. "I'd like people to try the traditional way, but everybody's got their own style. I'm just happy when people come in, and they get excited about the food. [However they eat it] they're still getting good food."

To contact Sushi Blues, call 664-8061.

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