Venue Review: Maru
Maybe it’s the season, but I can’t help wondering if the hinges creaked the first time Don Yoo opened the door to check out the place he would eventually choose as the home for his new restaurant. The building had stood vacant for nearly two years, after all, despite its location in a Lowes Foods-anchored shopping center at a busy intersection surrounded by upscale Cary neighborhoods.
For that matter, the entire shopping center hasn’t been a hospitable environment for restaurants. Bavarian Brathaus, Green Papaya, London Fish & Chips, Mythos Bistro – these are just a few of the promising establishments that have gone to an early grave in Wellington Park. It’s enough to spook most restaurateurs.
But not Don Yoo. And, as it turns out, the June opening of Maru was just a foreshadowing of the fearlessness of a restaurateur whose previous venture – a lunch spot in RTP called Con-Fusion – closed last year after a solid run of nearly a decade.
For Maru, Yoo expanded on his previous restaurant’s theme, offering a split menu of Japanese and Korean fare in a sleek contemporary Asian setting. In a daring move, he presented the bulk of the kitchen offering in the form of the area’s first Asian tapas menu.
Perhaps the move was too bold. More likely, given Yoo’s style and the strongly positive early buzz about the place, he just wanted to raise the ante by fully showcasing the versatility of chef Sang Deok Seo. A native of Korea, Seo trained and worked in France for several years before coming to the States.
Whatever the reason, it wasn’t long before Maru’s menu was thoroughly revamped. An entree list was added, an ambitious offering that spanned the globe from Korean bibimbap to Spanish paella, interspersed with fusion dishes such as Cornish game hen served on a bed of rice, coconut curry, and béchamel.
The tapas menu was slashed from 30 listings to 14, essentially transforming it into an appetizer list. Unlike the entree offering, the starter selection remains confined to Korean and Japanese fare.
But Seo’s flair for creativity shows up frequently here, too, in dishes sprinkled among the shrimp tempura, seafood pancake and other traditional specialties. In his take on beef karaage, he tosses deep-fried nuggets of ground beef and sunflower seeds in a rich, subtly piquant sauce and serves them over homemade noodles.
Some of the chef’s innovative flourishes are more successful than others. Panko-battered wraps of pork belly and snapper are so dense it’s difficult to tell pig from fish. Galbi lettuce wraps, on the other hand, are a delightful update on a Korean barbecue classic, serving up succulent, chewy-tender slivers of boneless beef short rib on crisp lettuce leaves, artfully arranged around a small mesclun salad dressed with a creamy cucumber-wasabi dressing.
If you like the lettuce wraps, you can score an entree portion of galbi in a pan-Asian riff on surf ‘n’ turf that pairs it with a tempura-battered soft shell crab.
More adventurous still is Eiffel Tower salmon, an East-West fusion almost baroque in its complexity. While I couldn’t fault any single component of the dish (roasted lobster, diced raw salmon, crispy wonton noodles, bok choy, mashed potatoes and a soy Thai basil reduction are just the highlights), the composition of the dish as a whole doesn’t come together nearly as convincingly as its namesake.
But I can recommend without reservation tacos de pato, which serves duck two ways: roasted shreds, as richly flavorful as confit, in soft corn tortillas; and toothsome, crunchy-crusted duck meatballs.
I confess that, based on my experience with other contemporary Asian bistro concepts, I wasn’t expecting much from the sushi bar. I figured it was just a sort of culinary safety net, offering a popular alternative to those who might be wary of Maru’s unorthodox fusion offering.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Turns out the sushi chef is Sung Song, the son of a sushi chef with nearly a half century of experience under his own belt. Song worked in New York City before coming to the Triangle, where he most recently wielded the knife at Sono.
Song can turn out eye-popping specialty rolls with the best of them. More than 40 rolls, in fact, including an unforgettable Kiss the Dragon that’s flambeed at your table.
But the veteran chef’s mastery really shows in the freshness and impeccable knife work of his classic nigiri and sashimi. The list is extensive, though if a particular fish is out of season or doesn’t meet the chef’s exacting standards, he won’t offer it.
This according to Angela Choi, the restaurant’s charming manager and hostess, who heads up a friendly and attentive wait staff. Judging by the quality of the sushi I’ve had at Maru, I have no reason to doubt her claim. In fact, I’d rate the traditional sushi offering at Maru (which, by the way, is made with real wasabi rather than the familiar pseudo-paste) among the best in the Triangle.
Good enough, I’d even hazard, that Maru can defy tradition in one more way – by flourishing in a location where many that have gone before have failed.