When Robert Lhulier isn’t in the kitchen, the private chef bellies up to the sushi bar at Takumi in North Wilmington, where sushi chef Hideyuki Okubo prepares an amuse-bouche, a paper-thin slice of pearlescent flounder folded around a shiso leaf, served with ponzu sauce and fresh ginger.
“Takumi means ‘artisan’ in Japanese, and that’s what Chef Hideyuki is,” Lhulier says. “He has put out beautiful, fresh sushi and sashimi for over 20 years.”
Over those two decades, sushi has gone mainstream. You can find it at Asian restaurants, seafood restaurants and supermarkets. Ramen rivals pho’ as the soup that eats like a meal, and Japanese snacks with “kawaii” (cute) packaging are all the rage.
Fusion blurs the lines between cuisines, with other countries’ influence changing Japanese techniques. Portuguese missionaries brought tempura to Japan, and sukiyaki—usually made with beef—gained favor when meat-eating foreigners arrived.
Here are six local eateries bringing the Land of the Rising Sun’s cuisine to Delaware.
A graduate of the Tsuji Culinary Institute in Japan, Okubo met his wife Jessie, who is Chinese, while working at Utagi, one Delaware’s first Japanese restaurants. They took over the space in 2008, merging their cultures on the menu to create Takumi.
“We try our best to make all our food fresh and delicious,” Okubo says. “Most of the sauces are homemade. All the dumplings and wontons are made fresh each day.”
Savvy sushi lovers request omakase, which tells the chef: “I leave it up to you.” “It requires very high skill,” notes Jessie, who would pit her husband’s talent against any chef in New York City.
Lhulier loves the spicy yellowtail hand roll topped with high-quality nori. “It literally crunches when you bite into it,” he says. “It’s a sublime combination of flavor and textures.”
1601 Concord Pike, Independence Mall, Wilmington, 658-8887
In 2000, the late Darius Mansoory changed Delaware’s sushi scene with Mikimotos.
Mansoory was inspired by restaurants in Atlanta, where he’d nibbled maki served by college-age hipsters in an urban atmosphere. Call it a marriage between Asian fusion and the cocktail culture.
Big Fish Restaurant Group now owns Mansoory’s restaurants, including Stingray Sushi Bar + Asian Grill in Rehoboth Beach.
Raw fish on sushi rice—not rolls—best reflects Japanese culture, says Tony Fok, Mikimotos’ executive sushi chef. Most entrées feature Chinese, Thai and even Mexican influences. Take, for instance, the duck quesadilla with hoisin-lime and sriracha sauce.
1212 Washington St., Wilmington, 656-8638
For more than 20 years, Okura has been the go-to place for Japanese food, and, for the most part, the restaurant has stuck to its traditional roots. The adventurous can try broiled eel dinner, while trendsetters can toss back takoyaki (battered diced octopus balls), a popular Japanese snack.
About 80 percent of orders involve sushi, sashimi and rolls, says manager Amy Yang. Chef Kailon Yeung runs one of the friendliest sushi bars around. Try the Kailon roll: shrimp tempura in a soy wrap, topped with spicy cooked scallop, tempura flakes, roe and eel sauce.
703 Ace Memorial Drive, Hockessin, 239-8486
Stephen Wong worked in a New York Japanese restaurant under a Japanese- American chef while studying for a bachelor’s degree. “I learned how to choose fish and prepare fish,” says Wong, a Hong Kong native. (If he were in Japan, he would have spent years just focused on sushi rice, he acknowledges.)
More than 10 years ago, Wong and wife Ling Cheung opened Rice in Dover to be near family. They followed its success with a location on Limestone Road near Stanton. The menus don’t lack for Chinese dishes, but you’ll also find tempura and teriyaki. Wong is not afraid to experiment. The Meat Lover roll is filled with rib-eye, bacon and asparagus. On top, Wong drapes slivers of rib-eye. “Americans like their steak,” he notes.
2015 Limestone Road, Wilmington, 999-7423;
Greentree Village Shopping Center, Dover, 678-1328
Before opening The Cultured Pearl in 1993, Susan Wood was trekking to cities to get her sushi fix. Initially, customers leaned toward entrées. Over time that changed, and the restaurant has tripled in size to meet the demand for sushi. The Pearl is now in a 22,000-square- foot space with a rooftop deck and 15,000-gallon koi pond.
Executive Chef Robert Wood and Master Sushi Chef Hiro Sano have created a diverse menu, but “the ingredients and technique are rooted in Japanese culture and cuisine,” Wood says. “We stay strictly traditional on some items but loose on others.”
301 Rehoboth Ave., Rehoboth Beach, 227-8493
Barry Kruemmel worked for Japanese master chefs for 15 years, but as an American, he won’t call his restaurant a Japanese eatery. “There’s a Japanese influence,” he says. “But it’s more of a fusion restaurant.”
This includes rolls made with toasted coconut, jalapeño or pineapple. Entrées and appetizers stray farther from Japan. Among the most popular: flash-fried halved jalapeños stuffed with fresh lobster, crab, goat cheese and Gouda. “It’s the best of both worlds,” he says of the award-winning sushi and the innovative small plates.
300 Coastal Highway, Fenwick Island, 581-0217